Major long-term-care home operators say all staff must get vaccinated — or face unpaid leave

Five of Canada’s largest operators of long-term-care homes will require their staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face an unpaid leave of absence, making the nursing home operators the latest in a string of employers to mandate vaccinations for employees.

The coalition of operators, which includes Chartwell Retirement Residences, Responsive Group Inc., Revera Inc., Extendicare and Sienna Senior Living announced Thursday that employees who are not vaccinated with two doses by Oct. 12 will be placed on leave.

Full vaccination will also be mandatory for new hires, students and any other personnel who work with the companies.

“As rates of infection once again increase in communities across the country, unvaccinated staff are more likely to bring the virus to work,” the joint statement read.

“This policy will increase (residents’) level of safety and improve quality of life for residents by reducing the need for isolation and disruption of daily activities that result from outbreak restrictions.”

The stronger policy comes as Canada endures a fourth wave of infections driven by more contagious variants of the virus. In Ontario, the seven-day average number of cases is up to 646 per day, with 302 people currently hospitalized.

Sectors of the economy that were shut down during the previous waves have scrambled to avoid another lockdown, mandating their staff to get vaccinated or face consequences. In a matter of weeks, businesses in the airline industry, food and hospitality, construction, sports and entertainment and finance have all declared vaccination mandates for staff.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government has touted vaccine passports as a key element to fighting the fourth wave, and has required federal employees — along with people boarding planes, trains and cruise ships — to be vaccinated.

Mandatory vaccination is of particular importance in the long-term care industry, which has been the epicentre of COVID-19 cases and deaths since the pandemic began. More than 15,000 people have died in Canada’s long-term care and retirement homes since the pandemic began, accounting for more than half of COVID-related deaths in Canada.

Long-term care workers, too, who often come from Canada’s racialized and new-immigrant populations, have been hit especially hard by the crisis.

The five operators said they don’t expect the new policy to impact staffing levels, noting that the companies now offer staff access to education about vaccination, help with booking appointments and paid time off to get vaccinated. The coalition said those policies have resulted in “already high staff vaccination rates that continue to rise each week.”

The home operators also said the new vaccination policy will help reduce the need for isolation and other restrictions on residents in the event of outbreaks.

In Ontario, where more than a third of people who have died from COVID-19 were long-term care residents, the province has already set minimum standards for vaccination policies in seniors’ homes. Staff must show proof of full vaccination or a medical exemption, and those not vaccinated must take an educational program about COVID-19 vaccination.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association has asked the province to strengthen those rules by mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all direct care providers.

“Front-line staff at each organization have demonstrated an enthusiastic response to our voluntary vaccination programs,” the group said in a statement. “We thank them for their commitment, but we need to do more.”

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