Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) has reversed an earlier decision meaning all staff must now be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15 or be put on unpaid leave until they are immunized.

The move comes after HHHS CEO Carolyn Plummer told a Sept. 23 board meeting that the health provider would not be making vaccines mandatory for all staff. That decision drew some criticism in the community. The new direction, explained to staff in an Oct. 4 memo, comes after the Ontario government introduced mandatory vaccines for workers in long-term care homes. “Our organization is quite interconnected,” said Plummer.

Since HHHS staff must move between service centres, including the hospital and LTC homes, she said it would be difficult to reestablish segregation protocols and barriers which were in place during the early stages of the pandemic. “This was a difficult decision that was not made lightly,” Plummer said.

In the memo, Plummer wrote “using an ethical lens, there are a number of reasons for why this change is happening, including the interconnected nature of our organization, the services we deliver, the need for staff and physicians working in other areas to access the long-term care homes, and the importance of equity across the organization.” Staff who remain unvaccinated, less than 12 per cent, have until Oct. 10 to get their first shot. There will be multiple drop-in appointments available for staff this week, and unvaccinated staff will be offered appointments. On Sept. 23, Plummer initially said a decision had been made to not force vaccinations.

“The hospitals that have gone forward with policies that lead to termination for those who aren’t vaccinated have the capacity to fill the gaps if staff do leave the organization. We certainly don’t have that same kind of capacity.” She also previously mentioned individual choice as a factor in the decision.

However, she said the level of vaccinated individuals is much higher than when the hospital first made the decision in early September. At around 88 per cent, there’s less worry about losing staff who choose not to get vaccinated. HHHS has also increased levels of contracted agency staff working in facilities, which Plummer said decreases the risk of understaffing in some departments.

“Regardless of which direction we took, we knew there were folks who would be supportive and folks who would be questioning the direction: we’ve seen that in both scenarios,” she said.

She also insisted the decision was not made quickly: “It isn’t like we’ve started the vaccine policy discussion on Friday afternoon, we’d already talked through a lot of these issues. “If someone was concerned about walking into the hospital and a staff being vaccinated at the time, my concern would be not having the hospital available at all,” she said, without clarifying the number of staff who would have had to leave for service levels to become unstable. Plummer said she is not aware of any staff choosing to leave HHHS because of the new ruling.

The Ontario Hospital Association is calling for a unified approach to vaccinations across Ontario.

In an Oct. 1 press release, CEO Anthony Dale wrote, “there is much evidence that hospitals have used measures to encourage, persuade and educate employees and staff who are vaccine hesitant to get the vaccine voluntarily. With COVID-19 vaccination becoming mandatory in long-term care, we feel the time has come to adopt a mandatory approach for all healthcare workers, including those in hospitals, too.”

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