MONTREAL - One day after Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said he was standing firm on his government's vaccine mandate deadline for health-care workers, he delayed it by one month.
Health-care workers will now have until Nov. 15 to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk being suspended without pay, Dubé said Wednesday.
More than 22,000 employees in the province's public health-care system are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Dubé said. And while the government was considering allowing workers with one dose to continue on the job, that would still force about 14,000 people out of the network, he added.
Suspending that many employees from an already fragile system would have been "irresponsible," Dubé told reporters in Montreal, adding that following through on the threat would have put unsustainable pressure on the workers who remained.
"The risk is too high," he said.
On Tuesday, however, Dubé said it was too soon to evaluate the impact on the health system of thousands of workers being forced off the job — and he remained steadfast on the original Oct. 15 deadline.
"We are not moving on the date,'' he told reporters in Gatineau, Que.
On Wednesday, he said he was particularly worried about having to increase the use of mandatory overtime — a controversial practice his government has promised it would reduce as a way to attract and retain more full-time nurses, who are desperately needed in the network.
The Health Department said Wednesday it didn't know how many workers at private facilities, such as seniors residences, remained unvaccinated.
Dr. Lucie Opatrny, an associate deputy health minister, said the loss of 14,000 workers would have forced the closure of 600 hospital beds and 35 operating rooms across the province.
"Everything that is critical, important and urgent would have still continued," she told reporters. "It wouldn't have been a breakdown, but it would have been an important stress and an important reduction of services."
While those unvaccinated workers only represent four per cent of health-care workers in Quebec, she said the system is "already very fragile." In some cases, such as in operating rooms, the suspension of one worker could make it impossible for the rest of their team to do their jobs, she added.
Unvaccinated health-care workers in the public system will be tested for COVID-19 three times a week, Dubé said. And if they aren't vaccinated by Nov. 15, they will also lose their "COVID-19 premiums," which increase workers' pay by up to eight per cent.
Marc Fortin, president of a group representing private seniors homes in the province, said the extension gives his members "room to breathe.”
A month ago, he said, about 8,000 of the approximately 40,000 employees in the network were not vaccinated — many of them cooks or maintenance staff who could switch jobs and work in restaurants instead.
While he said he supported the government's goal of having all health workers vaccinated, he said operators were worried about maintaining services.
“When (the residents) wake up in the morning, we still have to serve them breakfast," he said. "We can't tell them, ‘Well, we don't have a cook anymore.’”
Several health care unions in Quebec said they were pleased with Dubé's decision.
"I think he had no choice; I think he's probably known for about 10 days that we were going to hit the wall and he couldn't delay it anymore," said Jeff Begley, the president of Fédération de la Santé et des Services Sociaux. "The fact that the workload won't increase dramatically on the weekend, that's good news."
Begley, however, said in an interview he remains worried the situation won't change over the next month.
Health workers are also facing pressure from their professional orders. The orders that regulate doctors, nurses and licensed practical nurses said Wednesday their members will have until Nov. 15 to get vaccinated or lose their ability to practise.
A Montreal lawyer who launched legal proceedings this week in an effort to stop the mandate from going into effect said Wednesday that her lawsuit will continue. In her legal filings, Natalia Manole, who is representing nearly 50 health-care workers, said the mandate violates the rights of workers and "is not in the public interest given the inevitable breakdown of service.”
Meanwhile, health officials reported 512 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Hospitalizations rose by seven, to 298. There were 75 people in intensive care, an increase of three patients compared with the prior day.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.