More than 20,000 people employed in B.C. long-term care or assisted living facilities will have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12, the province said today.
Vaccinating care home staff and residents first brought the number of outbreaks down from its peak of 49 to almost none in February.
But there are eight current outbreaks, all caused by unvaccinated workers, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today.
And with the Delta variant spreading rapidly, particularly among unvaccinated people, mandating vaccines is the best way to protect staff and residents, she said.
“We have now seen with transmission of the new variant that we need extra protection in these situations,” Henry said, noting that even fully-vaccinated residents have fallen ill. “Those are the settings where those who are the most affected by the virus are living.”
“Once it gets into these high-risk settings, it can spread to people, even those who are immunized,” said Henry. The order is an additional step to stop the virus from entering the facility at all, she said.
Staff in all private, public, non-profit and contracted facilities have two months to be fully vaccinated. The order also applies immediately to volunteers and personal service providers like hairdressers, who will not be permitted to enter facilities until they have both vaccine doses.
Essential visitors, who were prioritized for vaccines earlier this year, and others visiting residents do not need to be vaccinated, Henry said.
The vaccination status of all employees will have to be reported to public health. Henry said that information will be used to design plans to answer vaccine questions and vaccinate all staff in the next two months.
The small percentage of people who can’t be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons will be accommodated, but will be required to wear PPE like masks and may be subject to frequent testing.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said the move is legally sound as it is “proportionate and reasonable” to the heightened risk COVID-19 poses in these settings.
Henry said discussions are underway about imposing the same requirement in other health-care settings.
The provincial health order suggests the province knows its vaccine promotion efforts, even among health-care workers caring for the most vulnerable, are not enough for 100-per-cent vaccine coverage.
And it signals health officials are reviewing vaccine mandates in other settings, such as hospitals, schools and post-secondary institutions.
“The level of action that we need to take to prevent serious illness and death is different in different settings,” said Henry, who has so far resisted calls to mandate vaccines in post-secondary institutions.
B.C. reported 536 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death on Wednesday, with hospitalizations continuing to creep upwards to 72 patients.
About 95 per cent of cases are among the now 17.7 per cent of eligible people who are not yet fully vaccinated, Henry said.
But despite a rising fourth wave that has seen the rolling average of cases increase 10-fold in five weeks, Henry rejected a return to more measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We are in a different place,” she said in response to a question of bringing back the mask mandate.
The province has imposed stricter measures to curb an outbreak in the Central Okanagan.
In a statement today, the union representing 4,800 long-term care and assisted living workers encouraged its members to get vaccinated but called on the province to bring back the indoor mask mandate for more protection.
“With the rapid spread of the Delta variant in B.C. and elsewhere, it’s critical that our province takes the steps necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and protect our vulnerable neighbours and frontline workers,” said a news release from the BC General Employees’ Union.
“We also know we cannot effectively combat COVID-19 with vaccines alone.”