Despite major seniors’ care providers mandating staff vaccinations, policies at local homes remain unchanged

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Wellington County long-term care and retirement homes are not mandating staff be fully vaccinated as a term of employment despite a group of major, for-profit long-term care and retirement home operators implementing a vaccination requirement.

A national seniors’ care coalition including Chartwell, Extendicare, Responsive Group, Revera and Sienna announced a new employment policy on Aug. 25 requiring staff be fully vaccinated as of Oct. 12 or be placed on unpaid leave as a consequence of not being double dosed.

The Wellington Park Retirement Residence in Guelph is owned and operated by Chartwell.

“We believe strongly that the risk of the virus to our residents and the need to ensure that we do everything we can to avoid future outbreaks and allow our residents to continue enjoying their lives, requires us to do more,” Chartwell communications staffer Sharon Ranalli said explaning part of the motivation behind the move, in an emailed statement responding to questions from the Advertiser.

Ranalli did not respond to specific, itemized questions—including what the vaccination statuses are of staff at Wellington Park—and instead provided a statement saying 86% of Chartwell’s retirement resident staff across Canada had received a first dose.

“This has been done with much thought, consideration and legal guidance,” Ranalli responded in a follow-up email.

“Chartwell employees who refuse vaccinations will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence and, depending on the circumstances, continued refusal to comply with our vaccination policy will result in their employment ending,” Ranalli stated.

Long-term care and retirement homes contacted by the Advertiser for this story, including Wellington Terrace Long Term Care, Morrison Park Nursing Home, Eden House and Caressant Care facilities in Fergus, Arthur and Harriston, do not currently mandate COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

Instead, their policies align with the provincial government’s minimum requirement (announced at the beginning of July) of staff in those facilities to either: provide proof of having received two doses, have a medical exemption or to refuse and take an education session on the safety and merit of vaccination and undergo weekly testing.

The Ontario Long Term Care Association, representing a majority of long-term care providers across the province, has previously called on the province to mandate vaccinations for all health care workers.

“Clear policy will ensure the existing health human resources crisis will not be further exacerbated with staff moving to other organizations from organizations that choose to mandate vaccines or losing them as they get sick from the virus as happened through earlier waves,” OLTCA CEO Donna Duncan said in an email to the Advertiser, advocating for “more stringent vaccine requirements.”

Duncan commended the move by the national seniors’ care providers for leadership in mandating staff vaccinations.

“Given the seriousness of the situation, and the impact of COVID-19 to our communities, now is the time to close the gap,” she said.

Local picture

At Wellington Terrace in Fergus, 292 of 320 staff members (91%) are fully vaccinated as of Aug. 27, according to assistant administrator Peg Muhlbauer. There are 21 who are unvaccinated, and seven with a first dose.

“Those that are not fully vaccinated have completed mandatory education on the COVID vaccine. Unvaccinated staff must be tested twice a week for COVID-19,” Muhlbauer said in an email.

All newly hired staff will have to prove they are fully vaccinated as a condition of employment at the county-run long-term care home.

Out of Caressant Care’s three nursing and retirement homes in the county, the Harriston retirement home has the most vaccinated staff, with 88 of 113 staff fully vaccinated, according to communications manager Stuart Oakley.

At the long-term care homes in Fergus and Arthur, 61 of 72 staff (85%) and 73 of 82 staff (89%) are fully vaccinated, respectively.

Oakley said in an email unvaccinated and partially vaccinated staff are required to “be tested weekly using rapid antigen testing or PCR testing.”

When asked if staff vaccination could be made mandatory in the future at Caressant Care facilities, Oakley did not directly answer the question but said, “We continue to explore ways to achieve optimal vaccination rates among our staff.”

At Eden House in Guelph/Eramosa, 83 of 93 staff are fully vaccinated (89%) according to administrator Lisa Holisek.

“We are reviewing the impact and implications of adopting at Eden House, the newly announced position [the seniors’ care coalition] has taken and will determine our direction on this matter over the next couple of weeks,” Holisek told the Advertiser, adding the home strongly supports government-mandated vaccinations in long-term care settings.

At Morriston Park, CEO Karen Bolger told the Advertiser in a phone call all 32 staff members are fully vaccinated, negating a need for mandatory vaccinations.

“We follow whatever policies are expressed by the ministry—so whatever they say, we do, pretty much,” Bolger said.

Although Morriston has 100% compliance, Bolger wonders how the province would still allow unvaccinated visitors if it does eventually mandate staff vaccinations in long-term care and assisted living settings.

“If you have unvaccinated residents, if you have unvaccinated visitors, what’s the difference with having unvaccinated staff?” she said. “I guess that’s my that’s my own personal view.”

The Advertiser asked the Ministry of Long Term Care about the potential for mandating staff vaccinations at seniors’ care homes across the province.

Spokesperson Mark Nesbitt responded, saying, in part, “The ministry is always looking for ways to help enhance vaccination uptake across the sector, and operators are doing the same when looking at their homes’ policy.”

According to ministry data, at least 90 per cent of long-term care staff across the province are fully vaccinated as of Aug. 27.