2 Hamilton councillors vote against mandatory vax policy for city workers


Published January 12, 2022 at 8:46 pm

There was dissent before Hamilton’s elected leadership ultimately decided the municipal employees who do not get vaccinated against COVID-19 by May 31 will be fired.

By a 12-2 vote, city council on Wednesday updated its mandatory-vaccination policy, following suit with the likes of Toronto and Durham Region, as well as neighbouring Burlington and Niagara Region. The update allows for valid exemptions, which will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The city bylaw about vaccinations will also be amended.

Since Aug. 26, the city has offered rapid antigen testing for some 474 employees who were unvaccinated. But it is running short of tests, which may be losing their reliability due to the swift tranmission of the Omicron variant.

“Based on our consultation with our medical officer of health (Dr. Elizabeth Richardson), and our occupational health and safety experts, and what we know today, and the experiences we’ve seen in other municipalities, it had to happen quickly because of the testing shortage,” city manager Janelle Smith said at a general issues committee meeting on Wednesday. “But this is wholeheartedly what the senior leadership is recommending.”

Ward 14 Coun. Terry Whitehead and Ward 7 Coun. Esther Pauls cast the two “no” votes against a formal bylaw change. Both favour vaccination individually. Whitehead said he could not go along from “a public policy point of view.”

Pauls, who also accounted for the lone ‘no’ during a 13-1 vote at committee, said such a requirement has to come from the province. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore have ruled that out for the time being. Pauls added she wouldn’t be supportive of the city policy unless she was “guaranteed” that a variant such as Omicron would “disappear.”

“I know it’s the establishment view, and I understand it, but I’m scared it’s a slippery slope when you start firing people on a vaccine that isn’t stopping the spread and not putting anyone at risk — at City Hall, or anywhere else,” Whitehead said during a special council meeting, held after a day-long general issues committee (GIC) meeting.

“Anyone who doesn’t get the vaccine is fooling themselves, that’s not the issue for me. But if we’re going to use this kind of exercise, then it better be one that makes sense. If we’re going to apply it to this, the mandate, then we should be, what about people who in the hospital for overeating, or addiction, do we start mandating things for them too?

“So I am concerned from a public policy point of view. If you’re going to be punitive, then if this was a vaccine that’s part of an issue or a concern from a general public policy point of view, I’d be a 150 per cent behind it as a mandate. This is not the case. There’s no expert — and I’ve read and I’m dealing with one right now every month — that says vaccines are going to stop the Omni-whatever (Omicron variant) progress. You can still get the vaccine, still go to work, and still pass it on to workers. So you’re going to fire them if they don’t get the vaccine?

“If you’re going to use that hammer, it better be for a solid, bona fide reason. And I don’t think we’ve hit that threshold. So I will not be supporting the overall policy.”

Hamilton has a 31.4 per cent positivity rate for COVID-19, and the effects of Omicron spread on on people who rely on city or public infrastructure are readily apparent. For instance, Hamilton hospital networks, including the McMaster Children’s Hospital, are ramping down procedures. Hundreds of essential employees have COVID-19, or are self-isolating.

Hamilton Street Railway is modifying the bus schedule as of Jan. 23. (Transit workers make up the largest share of unvaccinated city employees.)

Overall, there are 92 listed active outbreaks, including ones in nearly every shelter. Nationally, the head of Women’s Shelters Canada says they are overwhelmed due to significant staff turnover and shortages due to COVID-19 isolation.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s chief medical officer of health, emphasized the vaccines are critical for helping a city have a staff to run it.

“In terms of tranmission of Omicron, the vaccine itself does not stop tranmission of Omicron,” she said. “It can help reduce tranmission and slow it. So we still do think vaccination is a key part of that. But particularly when it comes to Omicron, the major impact (of vaccination) that we are seeing comes to the severity of disease on (worker) absenteeism.”

The experience of cities where in-person schooling has resumed probably provides an indicator for what’s in store for Hamilton when classes reopen on Monday (Jan. 17).

Edmonton, which is similar in population size to Hamilton, had schools reopen on Monday. On Tuesday, it had close to 1,000 teachers across its Catholic and public board who could/did not come to work.

‘If I was guaranteed’

During the GIC meeting, Pauls questioned the need for the policy.

“If I was guaranteed that everybody, 100 per cent of Canada, or 100 per cent of our city was vaccinated, that Omicron, or Delta, they disappear, I’d be the first one to say, ‘let’s go for it,’ ” she said. “But because it’s a moving target for me, I really have a hard time understanding it.

“We all know vaccination works, but I really am concerned about our policy, especially when we know that the province is responsible for this. And I think we should rely on them, and let them make the mandate.”

Quebec Premier François Legault is considering having unvaccinated adults pay an additional fee to help cover healthcare costs. The mere mention of a so-called ‘anti-vax tax’ preceded a near-immediate jump in first doses this week. On Wednesday, Moore said Ontario was not considering similar measures.

The Hamilton policy was supported by Mayor Fred Eisenberger. The 11 councillors in support were Couns. Brad Clark (Ward 9), John-Paul Danko (8), Jason Farr (2), Tom Jackson (6), Sam Merulla (4), Nrinder Nann (3), Judi Partridge (15), Maria Pearson (10), Russ Powers (5), Arleen VanderBeek (13) and Maureen Wilson (1).

Ward 11 and 12 Couns. Brenda Johnson and Lloyd Ferguson were absent.

“We know that the COVID-19 vaccine and booster work to protect people from becoming infected with the virus, acquiring more serious infections and in the end save lives,” Mayor Eisenberger said in a statement.

“We are committed to taking all the necessary steps to ensure City of Hamilton work spaces are as safe as possible. I encourage all our employees who are not yet vaccinated to do so as soon as possible. Please do the right thing now and get vaccinated. It will help protect you, your coworkers and your loved ones.”

The mayor and city councillors do not fall under the policy, since that would violate protections of elected office covered in the Ontario Municipal Act.

“Only the electorate can remove elected members of council from office,” Eisenberger said.

Richardson was asked by Pauls if Hamilton has an “excellent” vaccine uptake. The top doctor gave a qualified repsonse. She noted Hamilton’s age 12-and-over population now has 89.1 per cent first-dose update, with 86.2 having two doses and 45 per cent having their third. But she reiterated that the uptake is relatively low for younger schoolchildren. That age group, who are slated to be in classrooms next week with provincially provided masks and two tests going home to their parents, just received walk-in access this week.

“I consider it a very good rate,” Richardson said in response to a question from Pauls. “What I would like to see is for overall rate to continue to go up, particularly in our pediatric population, particularly in the age five to 11 group where we are in the 40 per cent range. We still have ongoing work that we do in parts of our community where there is more challenge in taking up the vaccine.”

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