Prime Minister Jason Kenney has said the mandate for a COVID-19 vaccine for health workers should be rescinded, but critics say the policy continues to provide important protections for patients at risk.
Kenny said during a news conference Tuesday in Red Deer that the province has directed Alberta Health Services (AHS) to “return options” to lift the vaccination mandate for employees because there is no longer a “compelling rationale” for doing so.
As the efficacy of vaccines diminishes and the transmissibility of the Omicron variant increases, vaccinated workers are “just as likely” to transmit COVID-19 as unvaccinated workers, he said.
We can’t squabble about this when the political leverage we’ve pulled is no longer useful.– Prime Minister Jason Kenney
“We’ve seen vaccines have a powerful effect,” Kenney told reporters. “But that has changed and our approach to disease has to change.”
“We can only get excited about this when the political leverage we’ve pulled isn’t working.”
The mandatory vaccination policy, which went into effect December 13, applies to all AHS and Covenant Health employees, as well as workers at AHS affiliates including Carewest, Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories — about 121,000 people.
An AHS spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing discussions about the regional guidance, and referred questions to government officials.
In a policy document outlining the mandate for its employees, AHS said it has committed to reviewing the policy before the end of March.
Dr. Lenora Sachsinger, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta, said Kenny should recognize that vaccine mandates may still be justified in high-risk environments long after they are no longer needed for the broader population.
Vaccines reduce the transmissibility of Omicron, Sachsinger said.
“We’re talking about health care workers who work with some of the most vulnerable patients in the county,” she said.
She said the regional guidance also ignores the possibility that future variables may have increased transmissibility.
“This may not be the last wave of the epidemic.”
Kenny declined to confirm the timeline, but said that since the county has now lifted vaccine mandates, AHS should follow suit.
He said AHS could instead adopt a global rapid-testing strategy to ensure periodic testing of all employees, regardless of their vaccination status.
“But again, doing that, using a rapid antigen test for people who are asymptomatic, doesn’t make much scientific sense,” Kenny said.
He said that while most AHS employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19, low immunization rates in some locations, especially rural continuing care homes and hospitals, have strained staffing levels.
He noted that about 98 percent of nurses and doctors provided evidence of vaccination.
“Given that vaccinated health care workers are as likely to move as unvaccinated people as we face workforce challenges, we believe current policy is untenable,” Kenney said.
In November, before the mandate went into effect, the county directed AHS to allow temporary rapid testing of non-vaccinated workers in an effort to ensure staff were retained in locations where compliance was low. Initially, 175 employees in health care facilities were offered the option of a rapid test.
But in late December, when Omicron’s cases began to rise, the county changed course. The option of testing was provided to any non-vaccinated worker who wanted to return to the job.
Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Law and School of Medicine, said the county has taken a “heavy duty” approach to AHS vaccine mandates.
“I don’t think there is any reason for the province to interfere and dictate,” she said.
“It looks like we have a county here that is bent on being as open as possible.”
Hardcastle said AHS officials are best equipped to establish vaccination policies.
“There are potential future variables, and we’re likely to see those variables and they may not behave in the same way,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that this decision was based on science, not politics.”