AHS extending mandatory vaccine deadline as immunization rate hovers at 94 per cent
Alberta Health Services is giving employees “every opportunity” to get vaccinated against COVID-19, including extending the deadline by which they need to prove full immunization in order to keep working.
AHS on Friday pushed the initial Oct. 31 deadline back to Nov. 30.
Officials at the agency said they "stand by" AHS' mandatory vaccine policy and promised it would be fully implemented, but that the change in due date was to give both employees and facility operators more time.
"We are also seeing some challenges with contracted providers, including a number of continuing care sites, particularly those in rural areas where the immunization uptake has been low,” AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said.
"I think it just mirrors the immunization rates that we see in the province and how it is disproportionately higher in certain areas versus others.”
She said the challenges are being felt across the province outside Alberta's largest cities.
Operators asked AHS for more time to prepare contingency plans.
“For example, they may not bring in new admissions, as an example, to try to keep the numbers lower. They may look at essential services, what’s essential for that site," Yiu said of options operators could consider if faced with staff shortages.
As of Friday, 94 per cent of all workers across AHS were vaccinated. That included 94 per cent of physicians, 97 per cent of ICU staff, and 76 per cent of casual employees who had submitted proof of full immunization.
A total of 61 employees had quit over the vaccine mandate, including 11 registered nurses and 20 in other clinical roles.
AHS also had more than 1,400 medical or religious exemption requests to review before the deadline, but Yiu said the agency was setting the bar "pretty high."
She told reporters she was confident the extra time would see more staff sign up for COVID-19 vaccine.
Leaders have been directed to meet with employees who either are vaccine hesitant or who have not submitted proof of vaccination.
“These individual conversations are really important, offers to speak to experts, we’ve got resources in place to not just help our managers in the conversation but also educational tools that people can take a look at, and we’re including peer discussions in this because we think it’s important to not just have it come from a leader, but also as colleagues,” AHS' CEO said.
Those who do not have an exemption approved and refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine could be placed on an unpaid leave of absence until they get vaccinated.
Yiu said there's "always been a risk" of further straining the health-care system if employees quit, but that the high number of staff already vaccinated would help.
"I think we have enough staff on right now that we can absorb that and we’re pretty confident, at least from an acute care perspective, that we’ve got enough immunized to be able to offset those who are still waiting to make the decision.”
She added the potential is exacerbated by Alberta's rate of staff vacancy, which moves between 10 and 30 per cent.
The vaccine mandate, announced at the beginning of September, applies to all AHS, Alberta Precision Labs, Carewest, CapitalCare and Covenant Health employees, members of the medical and midwifery staffs, students, and volunteers.
Workers who get vaccinated after Nov. 30 will be able to return to work when they provide proof of full vaccination.
AHS said it was not pursuing terminations for non-compliant staff at the time.