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Disappointment and resignation as Quebec drops health worker vaccine mandate

‘The government has put themselves on the receiving end of their own budget cuts’
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Members of the medical community expressed disappointment and resignation on Thursday after the Quebec government cancelled its vaccine mandate for health-care workers, with some saying the decision is a symptom of wider problems in the system.

Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, said he was dissatisfied with the decision, even as he acknowledged that the Quebec government had little choice.

Health Minister Christian Dubé threatened a vaccine mandate he couldn’t implement, revealing how much the government was disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the health-care network, which has been severely understaffed for years, Vinh said Thursday.

“Now, the government has put themselves on the receiving end of their own budget cuts and realized, ‘Holy moly, the hospital and health-care system is so understaffed that we can’t even fulfil our decree and we’re going to have to do something embarrassing, which is to rescind our mandate,’” he said in an interview.

Dubé said Wednesday that carrying out his threat to suspend unvaccinated employees on Nov. 15 would have seriously reduced health services and compromised efforts to improve working conditions in the network. “To deprive ourselves of 8,000 people, it would have devastating consequences,” he said in Quebec City.

As a doctor and scientist, Vinh said he’s disappointed that some three per cent of health-care workers “don’t believe in the very science that is the basis for the care that we give,” and have chosen not to be vaccinated.

He said he also worries that the government’s decision — though clearly “forced” — along with the choice to loosen COVID-19 restrictions earlier this week, are a sign that politics, business and unions are trumping science.

“If we continue in this direction, we may end up really going in the wrong direction, inviting a fifth wave, and what we want is, perhaps, the government to be a little bit more forceful — put on their pants if you will — and make the decisions that are unfavourable but necessary,” he said.

The Canadian Medical Association said it was disappointed by Quebec and Ontario’s decision not to make vaccination mandatory for health workers, which it described in a statement as “a mark of ongoing system failure.”

“On one hand, there is a collective responsibility to protect those in our care and the public from COVID-19,” president Katharine Smart wrote. “On the other hand, the health system has been neglected for so long that the health, wellness and supply of health workers are at critically low levels.”

Patient advocate Paul Brunet said Thursday in an interview he’s disappointed by the decision, but also resigned to the fact it was necessary.

Patients, he said, are stuck between two bad options: either possibly being treated by an unvaccinated health-care worker, or potentially not being treated at all because of staff shortages.

Brunet said he’s “a little disappointed” by the cancellation of the mandate, but is also “traumatized” by memories of the first wave of the pandemic, when some patients died alone in terrible conditions in long-term care homes.

Jeff Begley, the head of the federation of health and social services unions, said he believed the government made the best possible decision under the circumstances.

“There would have been real consequences to maintaining the mandatory vaccination, and so I think that in the circumstances, when we weigh everything, it was probably the best decision,” he said, adding that the fact the system cannot stand to lose even a small percentage of employees should be a “wake-up” call to the government to address staffing issues.

While Quebec rescinded its vaccine mandate for existing health-care workers, new hires will be required to be double vaccinated. Unvaccinated employees, meanwhile, will have to submit to being tested for COVID-19 three times a week and will be ineligible for pandemic bonuses, Dubé said Wednesday.

Begley said he believes that the stringent testing requirement along with proper protective equipment should be enough to keep people safe.

Vinh, on the other hand, said that tests aren’t always sensitive enough to detect the early stages of COVID-19, adding that implementing them will use up more time and resources in the already stretched system.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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