Carla Olson didn’t know what to expect when she volunteered to help staff at Bluewater Health’s new COVID-19 unit last year — but knew she was doing the right thing.
“It’s a medical condition and we were medical nurses,” she said. “I didn’t have small children at home so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
The Camlachie mother and former hairdresser was hired by the hospital in 2017 after taking Lambton College’s Practical Nursing program.
Today she’s unemployed, one of 18 individuals the hospital let go under a mandatory vaccine policy that took effective Nov. 1.
Olson spent time on the surgical and acute medicine units while also working as a clinical instructor with the college’s nursing program. Then, in the spring of 2020, she was redeployed to the ‘Med C’ unit launched when the virus hit Sarnia-Lambton hard.
“We were all terrified,” she said. “There was so much we still didn’t know. Just that fear of the unknown.”
Today, she’s dealing with another unknown.
“I’ve been through all the stages of grief,” said Olson, who also lost her teaching position at the college in light of its vaccine mandate. “In some respects, I’ve come to terms with it.”
When Bluewater Health began its vaccination rollout, Olson said she simply wasn’t ready.
“It wasn’t a no,” she said, adding she’s received all her routine immunizations and gets a flu shot annually. “It was a, ‘not right now.’ Let me see the science.”
A devout Christian, Olson believes she shares “the very DNA of Christ,” and has concerns about the impact of mRNA technology.
“I am not anti-vaccine. I’m just not for this one, because of the technology.”
Olson said she was denied a religious exemption but continued to work as she submitted twice weekly rapid antigen tests.
She said other staff shared her concern about the vaccine, including some who were pregnant and undergoing IVF treatment.
“Not a single colleague has ever said they were uncomfortable working alongside of us unvaccinated staff. In fact, many support us for standing up,” she said.
“As nurses we are taught about the importance of informed consent and the patient’s right to refuse a medical treatment … the staff were not given that right.”
Bluewater Health recently announced 99% of its employees and professional staff is fully vaccinated. Less than 1%, or 18 individuals, had not complied and were notified of termination or suspension of privileges. Another 25 employees — awaiting their full vaccination status — were on a time-limited unpaid leave.
“We are trying to be as accommodating as possible,” said Julia Oosterman, the hospital’s chief of communications and public affairs. “Our goal was zero terminations or layoffs.”
Bluewater Health joined many other Ontario hospitals in implementing its own vaccine mandate, despite the Ford government opting not to enforce a province-wide policy for fear of potentially losing “tens of thousands of health care workers.”
The government’s decision was criticized by many, including the Ontario Hospital Association.
“The risk of losing [health care workers] from the front lines is higher if we’re not using all tools at our disposal to protect them including vaccinations to reduce the chance of either getting sick or isolated from exposures,” Dr. Mike Haddad, Bluewater Health’s Chief Medical Officer, said in a Twitter post.
The hospital also said it will require all care partners to be vaccinated before visiting patient in Sarnia or Petrolia.
If a designated visitor is unvaccinated, the hospital said, testing at the door with a negative result will be required.
Olson said that’s unfair.
“We were fired instead of being allowed to continue with rapid testing, when visitors can enter who are not vaccinated and are given a rapid test to enter the same units we all worked in.”
Last month, Sarnia-Lambton recorded the highest COVId-19 case rate per 100,000 population in Ontario, and the lowest vaccination rate.
Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu has urged the hospital to reconsider its policy, noting Quebec backtracked on its vaccine mandate for health care workers.
“Bluewater Health should follow suit and hire back the staff they fired,” she wrote on Twitter, before announcing her own “mini caucus” to address the “unfair and unequal treatment of Canadians.”
Meanwhile, Olson has connected with one of the other 18 whose jobs were terminated, to enrol in courses with the goal of opening an alternative health clinic.