B.C. ends mandatory masking, continues COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers

Health Minister Adrian Dix denies the vaccine mandate causes health-care staffing shortages. However, rural mayors claim real staffing concerns amid some closures of emergency rooms.

B.C. ends mandatory masking, continues COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers
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British Columbia finally lifted its COVID mandates in health-care settings and senior care homes, including mandatory masking and proof of vaccination. Its top doctor did not rule out their return in the fall.

On April 6, Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the province is "emerging" from the pandemic. She hopes to confirm COVID is in its endemic phase over the next few months.

The lifting of restrictions took effect immediately on Thursday. Henry said such restrictions could return this fall as public health experts continue to study the seasonality of the respiratory virus.

She added the ongoing mandatory vaccination requirements for health-care workers allowed the province to lift the other restrictions.

The Ministry of Health refused to rescind the order in January that dozens of rural mayors claim has created an ongoing nursing shortage provincewide.

A group of 37 mayors formed the B.C. Rural Health Care Alliance, vying to solve health-care shortages in their communities. They participated in a conference call with the Health Ministry and raised the issue of terminating unvaccinated nurses as a cause for some scarcity.

Health Minister Adrian Dix denied the mandate caused the shortages, adding that people are not coming to work when sick. However, the mayors claim real staffing shortages amid some closures of emergency rooms.

In 2022, 13 rural hospitals temporarily closed their emergency rooms serving communities under 10,000.

"The issue on health-care staffing challenges is COVID. It's not the mandate," said Dix, who said in January that 99% of full-time health-care workers got the jab.

The Health Ministry terminated 2,496 employees across the province "due to non-compliance with the provincial health officer's Hospital and Community COVID-19 Vaccination Status Information and Preventive Measures order."

Approximately half of those workers fired for not getting the COVID jab worked in the Interior and Northern Health regions, where emergency room closures and shortages made headlines last year.

As of Spring 2022, 908 staff working for interior health (3.84% of the workforce) and 297 employees (3%) from Northern Health received the boot for not getting the jab. A government note clarified that some staff terminated did not hold medical positions. 

"That protects ourselves, each other and the settings that we work in. And that's one of the reasons why we have the confidence in moving ahead with removing some of the other restrictions in those settings now," said Henry on the health-care mandate.

The overall trend shows COVID infection levels "stable or decreasing at all sites," she continued. COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been mostly stable in recent months, she said, adding the recent flu posed a "challenging" fall and winter season that strained health-care workers.

In the weekly COVID data, the province confirmed 21 deaths from March 26 to April 1 among people who tested positive for the virus in the 30 days before they died. As of April 6, 282 people are in the hospital, with 21 in critical care.

"At this time, we have seen a decrease in all respiratory viruses, which allows us to move forward confidently in removing some of the measures in place," said Henry. "It's important to recognize that COVID is still with us, and as such, we must remain vigilant and continue surveillance to monitor the situation."

The province will stop publicly tracking COVID numbers next week, and the dashboard will go dark in early May. Data on COVID and other viral infections will remain available at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control's respiratory diseases site.

"The COVID pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone, and the people of British Columbia have shown incredible resilience and dedication in their efforts to combat the virus," said a joint statement by Henry and Dix.

B.C.'s top doctor added that mandatory vaccination requirements would continue for healthcare workers, despite a steady decline in COVID hospitalizations. Masks may also be required in high-risk situations where a patient is vulnerable to infectious diseases.

"The pandemic, of course, continues," said Dix. "And we have adapted again and again. But some of the fundamental principles we've learned together in this time are important and bear repeating."

"As we've seen with every change, it takes time for these things to happen," added Henry. "I encourage patience and kindness if you go into a long-term care home or a health–care facility in the next few days."

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