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N.S. eyes vaccine policy for LTC workers as Northwood employee tests positive

·4 min read
The case at Northwood in Halifax was identified through the facility's routine screening, and contact tracing protocols have been completed. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
The case at Northwood in Halifax was identified through the facility's routine screening, and contact tracing protocols have been completed. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's minister of seniors signaled on Monday the province could be ready to announce next week a vaccine policy aimed at long-term care employees, following a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a staff member at the Northwood facility in Halifax.

But Barbara Adams conceded that while mandating COVID-19 vaccines for long-term care staff — as some other provinces have done — is an option, it is "the most dramatic step that one can take."

"I understand why individual provinces who have different COVID-19 infection rates are going to make possibly different decisions that we would make," Adams said in an interview on Monday.

"We have been a relatively safe province, and so we are looking at the epidemiology that we have here and the infection rate that we have going on in the province now, and our policy team is considering all of the options."

Adams said she met last week with Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, and the vaccination policy team will be developing recommendations to present to Premier Tim Houston.

Quebec had mandated that all health-care workers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15. In British Columbia, a similar mandate comes into effect on Oct. 26.

CBC
CBC

Last week, a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in a staff member at Northwood, which had the largest outbreak of the disease in Nova Scotia when the pandemic began in early 2020, including 53 deaths.

Northwood CEO Janet Simm said the case was identified through the facility's routine screening, and contact tracing protocols have been completed. No other staff or residents have tested positive.

She could not confirm whether the worker was vaccinated due to privacy reasons. But she noted that 88 per cent of the facility's 400 staff members are fully vaccinated.

Simm said making vaccines mandatory for workers in long-term care facilities would create staffing problems at Northwood.

"At this point in time we'll continue with our precautions and protocols as we have them in place and we'll evaluate the proof of vaccine policy when it is released on Oct. 4," Simm said in an interview.

"We are working with a very vulnerable population so we believe we are one of the locations and programs that should continue to have heightened precautions.... We certainly have no intention of reducing our masking, [personal protective equipment], screening or testing protocols at this point in time."

Homes already grappling with staffing issues

Michele Lowe, executive director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, agreed that requiring long-term care workers to be vaccinated would create major gaps in the workforce.

She said a recent poll conducted within its membership showed that if vaccines were mandated, unvaccinated workers would leave their positions and find work elsewhere.

Lowe said if the government is going to require long-term care workers to be vaccinated, the mandate should apply to all health-care workers in the province.

"We already have a significant issue around workforce availability in long-term care, and even … if we lost 10 staff from a 100-bed nursing home, it's a significant amount of staff that would impact scheduling and ultimately service delivery," she said.

"We cannot afford to have any of our staff leave long-term care to go to other health-care settings that are not mandating vaccinations."

Booster vaccines being discussed

When it comes to requiring visitors to long-term care homes to have proof of vaccination, Lowe said it's a far different scenario than being refused service at a restaurant, for example, because of the emotions involved.

"We have to have a lot of discussions around what that is going to look like. If we have to start turning people away, it's just unfair to everyone and it's going to make it a very challenging situation," said Lowe.

She also said discussions are ongoing around the possibility of offering booster vaccines to long-term care residents, and a call about the issue was scheduled for Tuesday between Public Health and facilities provincewide.

Simm said Northwood continues to encourage its workers to get vaccinated and has been offering on-site vaccination clinics.

"I think Northwood is living proof that vaccines work and we're able to protect the vulnerable population despite the number of cases growing in our community around us," she said.

The province reported 55 new cases of COVID-19 over Friday and the weekend, bringing the active number of cases to 129.

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