Citing an “urgent need” to respond to the wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant, Niagara Health, which serves residents across the 12 municipalities in Ontario, is halting its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program for its health-care personnel.
In a statement issued on Jan. 6, Niagara Health said Omicron was not anticipated at the time its mandatory vaccination program was ordered in October 2021. However, given the intensity of the far more transmissible variant, it made the decision to pause the program in order to focus on its response.
“We remain committed to a fully vaccinated workforce at our hospital, and we will proceed with the implementation at a later time to be determined,” said Niagara Health president and CEO Lynn Guerriero in a news release.
The agency said the mandate policy has not resulted in job loss for any of its hospital staff. However, following the mandatory vaccination directive from the provincial Ministry of Long-Term Care, four workers were terminated from their positions at a care home Niagara Health runs in Welland. The directive also requires all eligible staff in extended care facilities receive a third booster shot by Jan. 28.
Niagara Health reiterated that vaccination for all new staff and physicians has been mandatory since Sept. 7, 2021, while those who are unvaccinated “will continue to be required to participate in regular antigen testing.”
Screening is required before every shift for all staff and physicians in keeping with infection prevention and control guidelines.
In a Jan. 4 release, Niagara Health announced the temporary closure of its Fort Erie Urgent Care Centre starting Jan. 6 in order that emergency-trained physicians and nurses can be re-deployed to its three emergency departments (ED) where there is a greater need for them. The three EDs see an average of 400 patients daily.
The chair of Niagara Health’s board of directors, Bunny Alexander, said the decision “was not taken lightly” and that the temporary closure was necessary “to address staffing shortages and maintain essential services for the high volumes of patients in our community needing emergency care.”
Alexander noted that other hospitals in Ontario have taken similar steps during the pandemic.
Since Dec. 21, 2021, 146 Niagara Health staff have tested positive for COVID-19 while 354 staff members are currently in self-isolation.
While the Omicron variant is more transmissible and leads to more hospitalizations than its predecessors, evidence shows that it causes less severe illness because it does not infect cells deeper in the lungs, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature.
This finding echoes earlier studies conducted in the United Kingdom and South Africa that found the risk of hospitalization due to Omicron to be 80 percent lower than with the Delta variant.
South Africa eased some of its COVID-19 restrictions after the country’s Department of Health reported a 29.7 percent drop in new cases in the week ending Dec. 25, 2021, with Omicron passing its peak without a spike in deaths.