British Columbia teachers can be required to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status under a public-health order issued Monday.
“An employer must request proof of vaccination from each staff member and must keep a record of each staff member’s vaccination status,” the order says, but it stops short of a provincewide vaccine mandate for teachers – a measure that is supported by the BC Teachers’ Federation.
Instead, the order paves the way for vaccine disclosure and mandates on a local basis as a next step, by giving regional health officers the power to enforce the order – and to potentially impose further conditions as needed.
“Unvaccinated staff members pose a health hazard to students and other staff members due to the higher risk that they can transmit SARS-CoV-2 to others,” the health order, signed by Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, states.
“The Omicron variant has introduced more uncertainty into the course of the pandemic, and the rapid rise in infection rates in British Columbia and the experience in other places have led me to conclude that additional measures are necessary in order to permit the school and public-health systems to plan for and respond to clusters and outbreaks of Omicron in schools.”
Dr. Henry said a lack of information about the vaccination status of staff members in school settings interferes with efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. In some regions of the province, she added, there is an immediate and urgent need for focused action to reduce the risk of transmission in schools.
Last week, the school district in Delta, B.C., became the first in the province to introduce COVID-19 vaccination requirements for its staff members. While many segments of the provincial public sector have been under vaccine mandates since November, Dr. Henry has left the province’s 60 individual school boards to wrestle with the issue on their own. The province delayed the return of school by a week after the winter break, and since then, a number of schools have suspended operations because they could not muster enough staff to operate safely.
Monday’s order left employers and educators confused. Ritinder Matthew, a spokeswoman for the Surrey School District, said Monday afternoon that the district was in the process of reviewing the document and was not able to provide a comment until Tuesday.
Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said the order came as a surprise and is quite unusual. She said a provincewide vaccine mandate for all teachers will be a more straightforward measure. “What happens next is less clear according to this order. It talks about medical health officers can impose limitations or requirements, but it doesn’t go into what those limitations or requirements are,” she said.
“We would have much preferred a provincial order for a vaccine mandate in all school districts.”
Ms. Mooring said the order opens many questions, including whether it would be a medical health officer to declare a mandate or still be up to school districts.
Monday’s order signals a shift in tone from the province, however, and points to a growing impatience with eligible British Columbians who have not yet been vaccinated. Dr. Henry’s order states that the situation has evolved as the Omicron variant fuels rapid transmission, stretching the health care system beyond its capacity.
As of Monday, almost 90 per cent of eligible people 5 and older in B.C. have received at least one vaccine dose, but that small portion of unvaccinated individuals makes up almost half of those in critical care because of COVID-19.
“Absent vaccination, British Columbia would be in a far more challenging situation than the fragile balance our current immunization rates have provided, but the transmissibility of the Delta and now the Omicron variant means that higher vaccination rates than previously expected are now required to maintain this balance, control transmission, reduce case numbers and serious outcomes, and reduce the burden on the health care system, particularly hospital and intensive-care admissions,” she wrote.
Dr. Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix are expected to hold a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, in part to address pandemic restrictions for bars, gyms and other venues that had been set to expire at midnight on Monday. A separate public-health order on Monday extended the restrictions for gatherings and events, and food- and liquor-serving premises.
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