The mayor of Merritt believes the provincial government could start curing the health-care system by lifting the vaccine mandate for health-care workers “right now.”
Mike Goetz said dropping the mandate would be part of a bolder approach, including the use of physician assistants, to help fix health care in smaller communities like Merritt.
According to the website BC Health Care System , staffing shortages closed Merritt’s Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency five times between Nov. 15 and Jan. 17.
Goetz also pointed to the situation in the Kootenay community of Elkford, whose emergency room has been closed for 16 months.
“There are solutions, but you have to be more broad-minded about it and stop following the status quo,” Goetz told Black Press Media. “Take a step out, maybe swim against the stream. We are looking for answers and some of them are staring blatantly in your face and maybe it is time we move in that direction.”
Public health orders dating back to October 2021 require workers in hospitals, long-term care homes and community health centres to get vaccinated for COVID-19. The provincial mandate, one of only two remaining in Canada, applies to 190,000 individuals. The province fired 2,496 health-care workers who refused vaccinations. Of those fired, over 1,200 worked in Interior and Northern Health authorities, where staffing shortages tend to impact smaller communities.
The province also issued an order requiring all professional colleges regulating health-care practitioners to collect information on their vaccine status, but did not require all health-care professionals to be vaccinated.
Anyone working for the public service, which employs about 30,000 people, must also be vaccinated.
Goetz, who chairs the B.C. Rural Health Care Alliance representing municipal officials from communities across the province from the Kootenays to northern Vancouver Island, first raised the mandate during a conference call with Interior Health in January. He hasn’t received a response and he’s not waiting for one.
“I’m a small-city mayor,” he said. “I don’t expect to hear anything from them.”
Goetz said staff shortages in the health-care system are not new and the province needs to act.
“You start to look at this kind of thing and wonder where the intestinal fortitude to make a change is,” he said.
So how much of a difference would 2,500 additional workers make?
“Anything is better than nothing,” Goetz said.
It is not necessarily about the numbers of fired workers, but the signal that their return would send.
“This is about people seeing that you are actually trying to do something,” he said. “I understand 2,500 people isn’t going to change the course of what’s happening, I do get that. But at least you are doing something and you are showing that you care.”
The demand from the alliance to lift the vaccine requirement mirrors earlier calls from the B.C. Liberals, who had called on the province in June 2022 to follow the federal government in suspending the vaccine mandate for provincial employees.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said vaccination requirements remain in place to protect the province’s most vulnerable and the health-care system.
“In B.C. and globally, measures taken to combat the ongoing public health emergency remain important,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“The trajectory of the pandemic over the next few months is uncertain as there is still significant spread of the COVID-19 virus in the province and around the world.”