SHIFT: Debating vaccine mandates make our sacrifices feel in vain

Whether healthcare workers should be vaccinated after all we have lost is just another sign of the disconnect between what's important for patients and government policy.

Lisa Machado 4 minute read November 8, 2021

Patients should feel safe within hospital walls. GETTY

As a patient, I am always hoping for the best.

After all, there are so many things that I don’t have much control over — the expertise of my doctor, the effectiveness of treatment, my prognosis — but the one thing I count on is that when I go to the hospital or my family doctor’s clinic, it’s a relatively safe place. After all, shouldn’t it be?

This was the question that one of our readers asked in an email this week, after both the Ontario and Quebec governments announced that they wouldn’t mandate vaccinations for healthcare workers. Diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia and scheduled for a life-saving stem cell transplant in December, the 22-year-old B.C. woman reflected on the impact that this decision could have on her, a person with virtually no immune system and who spends more than half her life these days in a hospital.

“COVID would kill me,” she wrote.

We half-joked about how it may be safer to have the transplant done on a high-top table with a red vinyl tablecloth at a burger joint where all staff members are vaccinated and patrons are checked diligently for vaxx status, than in a clinic with people who could potentially carry the COVID virus.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh.

After all, since the beginning of the pandemic, most healthcare facilities have been working hard to stem the spread of the deadly virus and ensure patients are safe, installing COVID screeners at every entrance, insisting on hand sanitizing, and providing clean masks. Many even revised visitor policies, restricting family members and caregivers from accompanying their people to appointments — all in the name of reducing the risk of virus exposure. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow — many families left their sick loved ones at hospital doors never to see them again. It happened to me — despite being vaccinated and willing to undergo any type of COVID test — we would have worn two hazmat suits if we had to — my mom and I were not allowed to sit with my brother as he died, and his children never had the chance to say goodbye.

We took one for the team, I suppose, but our sacrifice, and that of so many others, doesn’t seem to be worth a whole lot if those inside of hospital walls caring for vulnerable people aren’t subject to the same scrutiny.

Both the Quebec and Ontario government’s read on vaccine mandates is that forcing healthcare staff to be vaccinated will cause a crippling exodus of “potentially tens of thousands of healthcare workers,” according to Premier Doug Ford, which will delay important diagnoses and surgeries. He said this despite being told by hospital CEOs, healthcare organizations and medical officers of health back in mid-October that they were seeing numbers well below that.

Hospitals like Ontario’s London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) which has had mandates in place since October that require all staff to be vaccinated has had to fire just 84 employees for failing to meet its vaccine requirement. Others, like the Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa, reported 37 unvaccinated employees on leave; Cornwall Community Hospital said it expected to place 33 staff members on leave; and Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Windsor, Ontario fired 24 employees for not complying with its vaccination policy. All the hospitals reported that the numbers were low enough not to impact patient care.

Thankfully, in addition to the commitment of most hospitals to uphold vaccine mandates, there has been a steady stream of patient and healthcare worker-friendly statements from industry associations like the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which issued a statement expressing disappointment over Ontario and Quebec’s decision not to require healthcare workers to be vaccinated. The head of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) Doris Grinspun called the decision “a disgrace to patients and to the great majority of healthcare workers who desperately are supporting mandatory vaccination.” And the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) reported “a strong consensus among Ontario’s hospitals for a provincial policy requiring healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated”— noting that 120 of its 141 member hospitals supported the move.

That patients and healthcare workers have the support of most hospital systems despite what governments say is a bright spot in an otherwise dark time — a time when it’s really hard to be a healthcare worker and even harder to be a patient. Still, we continue to hope for the best — we have to. But it’s not enough, because debating whether or not healthcare workers should be vaccinated after all that we have lost is just one more disturbing sign of the disconnect between what’s important for patients, their families, those on the frontlines, and government policy.

It also reminds us of how far out we are from the finish line of this COVID nightmare.

In fact, it makes it feel like we’re not even close.