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Hospital staffing shortages could be due to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, some experts say

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As unions representing Ontario hospital workers continue to label the province's staffing crisis at its breaking point, some experts say continued COVID-19 vaccine mandates may inadvertently contribute to it.

Last month, CUPE's Ontario Council of Hospital Unions said that understaffing was taking a toll on its members' mental health, including registered practical nurses, personal support workers and clerical staff. That was compounded by a demonstration in Toronto on Tuesday, where hundreds of workers and union leaders rallied outside the Sheraton Centre.

Ontario's health care worker shortage has been widely known for years and is only set to worsen. According to a report from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) last spring, Ontario will be short of 33,000 nurses and PSWs by 2028 and must spend over $21 billion more to meet its expansion targets.

Now, at least two hospitals in Simcoe County have publicly changed their COVID-19 vaccine mandate policy for new hires as a condition of employment.

Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) and Georgian Bay General Hospital (GBGH) both revised their policies as of January 1, and while the vast majority of hospitals have not followed suit, some experts believe it's a good step.

"We're just sort of still in this cloud or fog of not wanting to look at the evidence that emerged quite quickly," said Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

Gomez said current policies no longer reflect what science tells us about COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccines.

Public Health Canada recommends staying current with vaccines six months after a previous booster shot or illness. However, Collingwood General and Marine Hospital and Orillia Soldiers Memorial Hospital confirmed to CTV News last week that their policy only requires two initial vaccine doses, per Ministry of Health guidelines.

"We've opened up pathways for international medical professionals to come work in Canada to deal with the shortages, and Ontario is one of those jurisdictions that have made those easier," Gomez said. "Imagine you're from a country that didn't even have the MRNA, and now you're being asked to take something that's not available, so as a practical matter, it wouldn't make sense."

According to Mariette Brennan, an associate law professor at Lakehead University, employers should continue to evaluate all vaccine mandates.

"Simply because we have new variants that come out that change the efficacy of the vaccine," Brennan said. "It doesn't really serve the purpose, so what we end up doing is denying good workers."

Brennan said she believes hospitals are trying to create an environment where vaccines become an essential tool in public health and said she is not against mandates themselves.

"I think hospitals will likely need to look at these vaccines again and make sure the policies reflect scientific reality," she said. "That will need to come from scientists and not from people like me, but I would like to see it where vaccine mandates properly do their job."

The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario has revised its policy to meet that update, now mandating booster doses in addition to the initial two doses.

CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun is disappointed that RVH and GBGH have taken steps to remove their policies and said that doing so isn't the answer to staffing shortages.

"There is a heightened rate of COVID, not a lower one," Grinspun said. "The solution is not to lower the protection for themselves and the patients, but to attract and retain more staff, with increased funding and supports."

Dr. Grinspun said the RNAO continues to ask staff at RVH and GBGH, in addition to all Ontarians, to keep up with vaccinations.

"The best way to attract new staff is to ensure that the staff feel that the hospital deeply cares about them, that the hospital knows that they need them," Grinspun added. "Competitive compensation, because that's why nurses go to an agency or other jurisdictions, workload and supports for career development."

In November, Public Health Ontario reported wastewater signals of COVID-19 were at their highest peak in a year. However, this week's reporting from the federal government indicated that COVID-19 across Canada is either stable or on the decline.

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