Editor’s note: An previous version of this article stated ambulances were diverted from Langley Memorial Hospital and patients had to find care elsewhere. It has been updated to include a statement from Fraser Health indicating ambulances were not diverted and no patients were turned away. It has also been updated to correct the number of health-care workers who potentially could choose not to be vaccinated for their job.
VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — While the BC Nurses’ Union is sounding the alarm, saying the province can’t afford to lose a single nurse due to the vaccine mandate for health care workers, the health minister says the move is necessary to contain COVID-19.
Responding to concerns that losing unvaccinated staff could cause a systemic crash, Adrian Dix says they are preparing for the worst, which would be thousands of workers choosing not to be vaccinated for their job. However, he hasn’t shared any specifics other than that they are targeting facilities with lower vaccination rates, and making an effort to boost rates.
“We do not take that decision lightly. There are people who may choose not to be vaccinated, and won’t be available for work,” he admitted.
Dix says regardless, this is what must be done.
“In acute care, we’ve seen significant outbreaks of COVID-19. That’s why it’s very important in this time, given the risks of COVID-19 and the risks of the delta variant, that we’re asking all health care workers to be vaccinated.”
The provincial health officer has said the vaccination rate for nurses is above 85 per cent, and for doctors over it’s 90 percent. In general, Dr. Bonnie Henry said it is in line with the provincial average, with regions like Northern and Interior Health having lower rates.
Nearly 50,000 long-term and acute care workers have until Oct. 12 to be fully vaccinated. About 150,000 other workers in provincial health care facilities have until Oct. 26 to do so.
On the heels of the announcement, the BC Nurses’ Union said while vaccinations are key, they can’t support any action that could lead to any nurses leaving their jobs.
Union vice-president Aman Grewal says all members are encouraged to get the vaccine, but the mandate comes amid a dire staffing crisis.
“The union is not in a position to support an order which will serve to remove even a single nurse or other health care worker from the health care system at a time of severe crisis, it’s just not something that we can do,” she says.
‘It is a dire situation here’
Over the weekend, there was a nurse shortage at Langley Memorial Hospital, according to Grewal. She says she flagged the issue with Fraser Health.
While the health authority did not directly speak to staffing issues at the hospital, it says patient care was not impacted over the weekend.
“All patients who presented to the emergency department at Langley Memorial Hospital this past weekend who required urgent or emergent care were seen and treated on a priority basis. No patients were turned away and we did not divert ambulances,” a spokesperson for Fraser Health said in a statement.
“This is nothing just a specific to one site. This is happening throughout the entire province,” Grewal tells NEWS 1130. “This nursing shortage is happening everywhere. We’ve had weekends where areas in the province have had to close their emergency departments. And we have agency nurses working up north and on the Island amid severe shortages,” she says.
“Our nurses are going home they’re crying, they’re crying during their shifts because they don’t have the resources available — and those resources are more bodies — to help them do their work.”
“The situation is that everybody is working short. It’s not just one area like emergency or ICU; it’s also happening in maternity, the surgical units and the medical units. It’s everywhere. It’s across the province, and that is what we are trying to convey. It is a dire situation here in B.C. Our nurses are going home they’re crying, they’re crying during their shifts because they don’t have the resources available — and those resources are more bodies — to help them do their work.”
Grewal says rapid testing, the use of personal protective equipment, and reassigning nurses who are not vaccinated to different roles are all alternatives to requiring proof of immunization and putting unvaccinated nurses on unpaid leave.
She is calling for creative ideas since the nursing shortage that’s been looming for decades is here — and COVID-19-related burnout has accelerated the crisis.
A woman died while waiting to be treated at a Kamloops emergency room earlier this month is one of the starkest examples of what is at stake when hospitals are not adequately staffed.
“That’s not the only death that has occurred,” Grewal says.
A solution to the shortage, Grewal suggests, will take time but there are solutions she would like to see implemented now.
“We have close to 800 internationally educated nurses who are in the process of trying to get their license here to be credentialed to work here in B.C., yet they’re in this credentialing process that can take up to five years. We want that to be decreased and open up more seats — if they need to upgrade their education.”
Grewal adds that she would like to see people who are registered nurses in other counties at utilized by putting their skills to use in other positions in the health care system.
By 2029, 24,000 nurses need to be brought on board, Grewal says.
“So that’s two cycles of nursing programs,” she says, noting it will take four years for people to complete the program.