Education said key in overcoming health-care worker opposition to COVID-19 vaccine

TORONTO — A consensus appears to have developed that educating reluctant health-care workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is better than trying to force them to get the shots.

While most of those on the pandemic front lines are eager to get their doses, a small but significant minority have indicated their opposition to mandatory vaccinations.         

"Coercion is certainly a method that's available to the government but I don't believe it's the most effective mechanism," said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"We're going to have to overcome people's reluctance by providing them with the facts and the science that shows vaccination is in the public interest, that the vaccine is safe."

A general poll last month by the Angus Reid Institute found at least 14 per cent of those asked — 21 per cent in Saskatchewan — would refuse COVID shots when they become available.

This month, a survey of about 30 long-term care facilities and retirement homes in the southwestern Ontario county of Windsor-Essex put 21 per cent of front-line health-care workers in the "no" column.

David Musyj, president of Windsor Regional Hospital that did the survey, called the finding a "pretty good result" for a brand new vaccine with which many people are still unfamiliar. The focus, he said, should be on ensuring those who do want the inoculation can get it as soon as possible rather than trying to force the unwilling.

"Why have that fight and debate now?" Musyj said. "Wastes time and energy."

Experts believe upwards of 75 per cent of the population will have to be vaccinated before "herd immunity" takes hold and begins to stop the novel coronavirus in its tracks.  

While a small minority either cannot tolerate vaccines or is flat-out opposed to them, others have legitimate safety and efficacy questions about COVID-19 shots. Regulators, however, have concluded those now available are both safe and highly effective. 

Neither Ontario's health or long-term care minister responded to a request for comment. However, a Health Ministry spokesman ruled out mandatory vaccinations.     

"To be clear, the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandated for Ontarians," David Jensen said. "We do strongly suggest that people embrace the opportunity."

Jensen would only say uptake for the limited supply of vaccines available to date has been good.

Donna Duncan, head of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, said education is a key component to the success of the vaccination program. What's important, she said, is for public health authorities to show COVID-19 vaccines work safely.

"Getting vaccinated is another commitment staff can make to the vulnerable residents," Duncan said. "Effective, clear communications about the benefits and risks will be key to ensuring the level of uptake we hope to see."

Some civil libertarians warn they wouldn't accept any attempt to force health-care workers to roll up their sleeves for a needle. The charter, they say, gives Canadians the right to make their own medical decisions. 

"The decision to be vaccinated is a personal one and must remain so," said Jay Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in Calgary. 

Anthony Dale, head of the Ontario Hospitals Association, said preliminary work was underway involving government, organized labour and health-care leaders about how best to get the pro-vaccination message out to individuals on the front lines.  

"It has to be a constructive approach," Dale said. "We're just not in favour of mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 at the moment. We can help people build their confidence in it by working together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press