B.C.’s provincial health officer issued a public health order Monday requiring schools across the province to provide proof of vaccination status for its teachers.
The order applies to all staff across B.C.’s public, independent and francophone schools, and includes sharing how many doses of vaccine an employee has received and when they were vaccinated.
“An employer must request proof of vaccination from each staff member and must keep a record of each staff member’s vaccination status,” wrote Dr. Bonnie Henry in her order.
That information must be held in a way that does not reveal an individual’s identity. In the case of an outbreak or exposure, schools are now required to act as if staff who have not provided proof of vaccination are unvaccinated.
The BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), which represents 45,000 teachers across the province, responded swiftly to the new order, stating in a tweet it had not been consulted or notified the order was coming ahead of time.
“It is confusing as we have already agreed with (the BC Public School Employers' Association) to a vaccine mandate process and would like districts to implement those,” wrote the BCTF.
“We would have much rather it would have been a provincial vaccine mandate,” BCTF president Teri Mooring told Glacier Media. “What this does, this ends up causing a lot more questions than answers.”
Mooring says it’s not clear whether medical health officers will be able to roll out vaccination mandates under the order or if the measures will be applied at the regional level.
The order, which traces B.C.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, states that communities with low vaccination rates have seen more cases of serious illness and hospitalizations, including intensive care unit visits.
“People who are vaccinated can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, but experience less severity of illness than unvaccinated people, especially in younger populations,” states the order.
“Vaccinated persons who contract COVID-19 can transmit SARS-CoV-2 but are also generally contagious for shorter periods of time, are less symptomatic, and are less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2, when compared to unvaccinated infected persons.”
The situation, adds Henry in her order, has gotten worse over time, first with the arrival of the Delta variant and now with Omicron. With hospitals “stretched beyond capacity,” primarily due to unvaccinated people, B.C.’s health-care system is spending a disproportionate amount of its resources on unvaccinated patients.
Last week, Henry pointed to BC Centre for Disease Control data that found unvaccinated people accounted for 47 per cent of all hospitalizations between Dec. 11 and Jan. 12 — a period roughly equivalent to the rise of the Omicron variant in B.C.
Despite the nearly 50-50 split, people who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine account for over 82 per cent of B.C. residents — meaning they are landing in hospital at a much lower rate than the unvaccinated.
The data showed unvaccinated were 12 times more likely to land in hospital and 27 times more likely to end up in an ICU.
With roughly 350,000 B.C. children between five and 11 years old still waiting for a second dose of the Pfizer paediatric vaccine, Henry’s order says they are more at risk than some other demographics.
Mooring said it's not surprising Henry's order says “there is an immediate and urgent need for focused action to reduce the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in schools."
“Omicron is so much more transmissible,” said Mooring. “As more people become ill, we’re really concerned is that there’s going to be more functional closures.”
Mooring says there is a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related occupational health claims among elementary teachers. But data is hard to come by elsewhere and functional closures are not currently reported by health authorities.
At the same time, Henry's message that schools are at risk of becoming hotbeds of transmission contradicts her claims throughout the pandemic, said Mooring, adding that many of the justifications for the latest order align with what the BCTF has been calling for all along.
“There's been real resistance to doing anything but the bare minimum with safety measures,” she said.
Mooring says there has been a lack of progress to ensure teachers' get prioritized for booster vaccines and have access to N95 masks. While the province has done a “good job” tallying the status of ventilation systems across the province, ensuring each school and classroom is ventilated with a good HEPA filter has fallen short, said Mooring.
The BCTF president added that there's an urgent need to roll out a targeted education campaign for children and families about wearing masks and getting vaccinated — especially in the Interior and North, where vaccination in younger children has lagged.
More concerning, she said, the province and its health authorities have failed to keep up with the latest research on COVID-19 and its spread through aerosol transmission. In Vancouver Coastal Health, for example, guidance sent to at least some parents last week stated there is “no evidence that ventilation systems, in good operating condition, are contributing significantly to the spread of the virus in BC schools.”
“As a result,” it went on, “portable air cleaners (e.g. HEPA) are not required under the provincial Public Health Communicable Disease Guidance for K-12 Schools.”
That prompted several leading scientists in aerosol transmission to call out British Columbia on social media over the weekend for “some of the worst practices Worldwide in mitigation of COVID-19 transmission...”
Mooring added her voice to those international critics: “It doesn’t seem to be aligned with what’s happening in other jurisdictions, and what the science says."
On Monday, Henry's order acknowledged COVID-19 among school staff members “can contribute to clusters of infection and lead to the isolation of a large number of children who are identified as close contacts.” That, in turn, would prevent them from attending school and other social activities, adversely affect their well-being.
“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,” wrote Henry.
By reporting the vaccination status of school staff members, the order says school administrators will be better able to mitigate risk and respond to school exposures, cases, clusters and outbreaks.
The order says there are “various options for establishing vaccine status, including in paper and online format.”
Henry said she has information to believe the Omicron variant is leading to an increasing number of infections across B.C., and that a lack in information provided to school boards and administrators of independent and francophone schools “interferes with the suppression of SARS-CoV-2.”
She added there is an “immediate and urgent need” to focus action on schools in some health regions across the province.
Failure to comply with the order would be considered an offence under B.C.’s Public Health Act.
The order has no expiry date and Henry could adjust it as she sees fit. B.C.'s top doc is set to hold a media availability on Tuesday, Jan. 18.