Public servants have to be vaccinated by Dec. 17, says N.L. government
"It's another tool to help people feel safe," said Premier Andrew Furey
Public servants in Newfoundland and Labrador will have until Dec. 17 to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the provincial government.
Premier Andrew Furey, Deputy Premier Siobhan Coady and Health Minister John Haggie announced the plan Friday, detailing how the provincial government will handle vaccination status as workers transition from working at home to returning to the workplace.
The policy will apply to all provincial government departments, including agencies, boards and commissions. It also applies to employees who serve vulnerable populations, including long-term and personal-care homes, schools and child-care providers, and employees of businesses where the NLVaxPass app is required.
Employees and departments will be tasked with keeping an updated list of fully vaccinated employees, as well as making sure guidelines are followed. All documents for proof of vaccination, exemptions or COVID-19 testing will be stored in accordance with the province's access-to-information and privacy legislation.
"It's another tool to help people feel safe," Premier Andrew Furey said Friday, adding the decision to mandate vaccinations was not made lightly. "Being fully vaccinated protects not just an individual; it protects all of us."
Employees who have not provided proof of full vaccination or a granted exemption by Dec. 17 will be considered to be not following policy, says the government.
Employees hired on or after the deadline must be fully vaccinated by the job's start date. Job offers will be revoked without an approved vaccination or exemption. The rules also apply to onsite workers who work alongside core government workers, such as vendors and contractors.
A person is considered to be fully vaccinated when at least two weeks have passed since an individual's second dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Furey said the policy also applies to school teachers. He said there is room for accommodation but co-operation is expected, and refusing to comply with the policy could result in an absence without pay. He would not say whether someone could be terminated for declining to be vaccinated.
He added accommodations can also likely be made for people who can do their job from home or another location outside a core government office, and that more on penalties and enforcement is expected to be available in the next week.
The ruling also applies to health-care workers, according to Coady, who said it's the province's job to make sure people are protected.
"Our health-care system is very, very strong. I know that the medical professionals understand how important it is to get vaccinated, and I would think that they'll be compliant with this as well."
The policy also includes a COVID-19 testing element that can be applied in certain cases, where a person would have to be tested two times per week at their own cost, but testing will not be required for people who are medically exempt.
Exemptions can be approved only for medical reasons, and must be provided by an appropriate health-care provider. When exemptions cannot be provided by a family doctor, Haggie said, they can be attained from a nurse practitioner.
Furey said he expects the number of people in this group to be small, so people who aren't being tested shouldn't cause a spike in cases or affect health services.
People with an allergy to an ingredient in a vaccine or who have a pre-existing condition connected to the vaccine such as myocarditis will likely also be part of group that needs to be frequently tested, he said.
Furey said the Dec. 17 date was chosen to allow unvaccinated people time to get two doses of vaccine before the deadline. While some provinces, including Quebec, have had to push their deadlines to allow more workers to be fully vaccinated, he said he hopes that isn't the case in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"People knew that this was coming, and we've given them an extra long runway to get the vaccines that are required," Furey said.
"Our intention isn't to change the deadline, but our intention was never to have a deadline to begin with. So we will adapt accordingly … as the virus changes."
The policy will be reviewed at least every six months, according to the provincial government.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said cooperation by all sides is the key to making this vaccine mandate work.
CUPE wants the provincial government and employers to consult with unions throughout the rollout of the mandate, and said it will monitor the situation closely and be "addressing employers' actions on a case-by-case basis."
"We have an obligation to all our members, including those who are not vaccinated," said CUPE N.L. president Sherry Hillier in a media release. "Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who cannot be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons."
Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle told reporters on Friday his union has always supported vaccinations, and will look at things on a case-by-case basis.
"I would encourage people, unless they have an exemption, to please get vaccinated for the health and safety of themselves, their coworkers, for the health and safety of people who are entrusted in their care," Earle said.
Yvette Coffey, president of the province's registered nurses' union, told CBC News they have been part of the consultation process, and they fully support the plan.
"We believe in science, and the science says that we follow the public health guidelines, we get vaccinated, we do our social distancing and this is better for our province, and the country and the globe," Coffey said Friday afternoon.
She said a "high percentage" of her membership is fully supportive of the vaccine mandate, but didn't have an exact number.
Friday's COVID-19 update
The province's Department of Health reported four new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, but active cases continue to dwindle with 11 more recoveries.
Two of Friday's cases are in the Eastern Health region. Both are female. One is related to international travel, the other is under investigation by public health.
The other two cases are split between the Central Health and Western Health regions. The case in central Newfoundland is under investigation, while the case in western Newfoundland is related to travel within Canada.
None of Friday's cases are connected to previous clusters.
Of the 11 recoveries, three in the Eastern Health region and eight in the Central Health region. The province now has 53 active cases, down from 60 on Thursday.
Nine people are in hospital, two fewer than on Thursday. Four are in critical care.