'The boat’s sinking': Unvaccinated Kelowna healthcare workers want back into the workforce

Unvaxxed hope for return

A year after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry first announced unvaccinated healthcare workers would be fired, those impacted by the mandate are still sidelined and unable to help a healthcare system in crisis.

Grace Effa and sister-in-law Maeann Effa both worked at Kelowna General Hospital as registered nurses prior to being placed on leave in October 2021, later to be terminated, for remaining unvaccinated.

Grace worked in the COVID-19 ward while Maeann was in the emergency department.

And while nurses leave the healthcare sector in droves over horrid working conditions, both are waiting for the day when they can return to work.

“Nursing is a very challenging job, and you don't go into it without, I think, seeing it as a calling to be able to help people,” Grace told Castanet.

“We both have the skills to do it. And it's so desperately needed in B.C. and in Canada… We see ourselves as being able to meet this need. And it's really sad that we can't right now.”

Since being terminated from KGH, both Grace and Maeann have worked in private homecare nursing in addition to odd jobs like bartending, snow shovelling and painting.

Maeann said the past year has been a lot of waiting and asking herself questions, “Do I wait to be invited back? Or do I pursue a different career?”

Moving to another province, or even the U.S., is possible, but not being considered at this point.

“I want to serve my community here, make a difference here,” Maeann said. I could go abroad to make more money, but it's not really about that for me. I want to be here serving this place.”

British Columbia remains an outlier, alongside Nova Scotia, in keeping vaccine mandates in place for healthcare staff. In Ontario, individual hospitals have the power to enact their own mandates and some have continued to do so.

About 2,500 British Columbian healthcare workers, 900 in the Interior Health region, were terminated last year for being unvaccinated. With that making up less than two per cent of health authority employees in B.C., their return to work is not the solution to a healthcare staffing crisis, said the Ministry of Health in a statement to Castanet.

Grace and Maeann agree. But on a much smaller scale within an individual department, they say they can help.

“It's been especially hard seeing ERs close across the province, as an ER nurse, and knowing that working, even one or two staff short, on a day makes a huge difference … and sometimes it is life or death,” Maeann said. “I could see dozens of patients in a day. And that makes a difference.”

Grace says she was drawn to nursing for the opportunity to do good and “bless people in the midst of their darkest day.”

“And to have that taken away, knowing and seeing every shift I'm making such a positive difference in these individuals’ lives, that really was painful… there will be other nurses, but every nurse counts.”

Dr. Joshua Nordine, a family practitioner at Rutland Medical Associates, has been able to work and see patients in his private practice while remaining unvaccinated.

But beyond that he’s been, practically speaking, cut off from the rest of the healthcare system. He was terminated from his position as a local detox doctor and can no longer do things like order blood transfusions at the hospital for his family practice patients.

If one of his patients ends up in hospice care, he can’t go see them.

“You look after these patients for years, you know them, you know where they've been in life, you have an appreciation for their spiritual journey, if any. I strongly believe you can provide better care,” he said.

“The hospitals, they have exemptions for unvaccinated people visiting family members, but they won't let a doctor come in and see somebody.”

At the end of the day, Nordine says “he’ll be fine” and can continue to work in his private practice. But most other healthcare workers, like Grace and Maeann, do not have the same option, he noted.

“But the boat’s sinking right, healthcare is in a state of freefall,” he said. “And when the boat’s sinking you need everybody bailing. You don't start, you know, throwing people overboard — and that's where we are.”

Nordine is one of 11 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms challenging the healthcare vaccine mandate. The lawsuit will go to trial for ten days in November in BC Supreme Court.

He is also involved in a “Hire Back our Heroes” billboard campaign advocating for the lifting of the mandate.

Grace and Maeann, meanwhile, say the BC Nurses Union is advocating for them at arbitration in an attempt to get their jobs back.

In a statement to Castanet, the union declined to comment on specifics but confirmed they are “actively representing nurses who have come forward seeking union support following their termination due to the vaccine mandate through the grievance process.”

The BC Nurses Union is one of few public sector unions to publicly oppose vaccine mandates, citing concerns over impacts to patient care.

Leanne Honce worked for Interior Health as an occupational therapist in Kelowna for 22 years before being terminated for remaining unvaccinated.

As a single mother of three teenage kids, she would jump back into the healthcare workforce immediately if allowed. She agrees calling back all the unvaccinated staff won’t fix the healthcare system's problems, but there is a need for all hands on deck right now.

“We were already short staffed, with our frontline workers, you can see that Kelowna’s population is aging. It is no surprise what was happening, but there were no plans in place for it,” she said.

“And then to go ahead and fire a bunch of people on top of already, a lack of frontline workers, it just doesn't make any sense.”

Honce says since being terminated she has tried to open a private care business, but it has been an uphill battle when people are not accustomed to paying for healthcare. “But they're gonna have to get really used to it real quick, because the public system is not able to provide."

On Thursday, the provincial government announced it is keeping COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place. A pair of provincial health officer orders were updated and renewed on Monday.

“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,” the Ministry of Health said in a news release.

Mutations in the COVID-19 virus means vaccine protection has waned significantly. While two-doses of the vaccine still provides protection against serious illness, the same can’t be said about contracting the virus.

A large study published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine found people who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had no protection against contracting the Omicron variant after 20 weeks. People who received two doses of Pfizer had just 9% protection after 25 weeks. Moderna drops to 15% after 25 weeks.

Booster doses increase protection significantly, but boosters are not required to be considered vaccinated in B.C.

In a statement to Castanet, the Ministry of Health said that while healthcare workers only need two doses to keep their jobs, they encourage boosters.

“Our health-care facilities and health-care providers deliver care for our most vulnerable, at-risk citizens, so it is important that we maintain this important layer of protection for them, which includes ensuring our workers are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus,” said a ministry spokesperson.

“Vaccine mandates help protect the functioning of our overall health care system, by protecting health care workers from each other and protecting those using the system.”

Dr. Nordine views that response as a way of shutting down the conversation.

“Dr. Nordine can see a cancer chemo patient in his office as he wishes, immunocompromised everything else, but an unvaccinated paramedic can't be sent out to a 911 call?” he says.

“B.C. has taken a very extreme approach during the COVID pandemic, and it's at the time now, where we need to heal and come together and bring people back to work.”

“They can do so safely, and we need to have that discussion.”

The BC Liberal Party called on the BC NDP over the summer to reinstate unvaccinated healthcare workers.

“British Columbia is out of step with the rest of the country in this regard,” said party leader Kevin Falcon. “We’ve got a situation now that just warrants the immediate lifting of the vaccine mandate.”

Kelowna General Hospital, on Friday, was operating at 132 per cent capacity with just 12 COVID-positive patients in isolation.

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