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Why Burnaby firefighters don’t have to be fully vaccinated while paramedics do

Mandatory testing for each unvaccinated firefighter will cost the city up to $30 a week

By Dustin Godfrey | November 16, 2021 |5:00 am

The City of Burnaby will be paying about $30 a week on COVID testing for each full-time firefighter and other staff member who declines to get vaccinated.

City spokesperson Chris Bryan confirmed to Burnaby Beacon that the city would bear the costs of the testing for vaccine holdouts. The city will be getting the tests at a below-market rate of around $10 apiece, Bryan said.

The city’s vaccination policy, unveiled late last month, states that city employees will have to be fully vaccinated by Nov 29. Those who are not fully vaccinated, the policy says, will have to take part in the city’s COVID screening program.

Bryan clarified in an email that the program will require staff to get tested up to three times a week with no more than 48 hours between tests.

In a Monday-Friday role, that would mean testing on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Bryan said.

Different standards for first responders

Ambulance Paramedics of BC president Troy Clifford questioned why firefighters are not required to be vaccinated when they’re responding to the same calls as paramedics.

“Unfortunately, paramedics are losing their careers, and firefighters are exempt from that, going to the same calls,” Clifford said.

“From an evidence-based perspective, it doesn’t make sense. We believe that the best practice is that everybody responding to paramedic or emergency calls as first responders or paramedics need to be fully vaccinated.”

Paramedics, along with all other health workers, are mandated by a provincial health order to be fully vaccinated. Those who are not are losing their jobs—at last count, there were around 85 paramedics among a provincial staff of 4,500 who were not vaccinated.

Clifford said he believes the response by BC EHS is “excessive” but acknowledged that, in this case, there’s a narrow line to walk between protecting people’s jobs and protecting patients.

“These are people that have given a lot of their time and careers to help people. … To lose your job or career over this choice, that’s got to weigh pretty heavily. So I think that that’s an excessive thing,” he said.

"I have very little patience for people who refuse to get vaccinated, unless they have a bona fide reason, like health or others under the Human Rights Act."

Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon

Instead, Clifford suggested the employees be put on unpaid leave rather than losing their jobs outright—although he said the government so far hasn’t budged on that.

But when it comes to firefighters, Clifford said he has tried to get answers from the province about why they, as first responders, were excluded from the provincial health order.

“They’re not going in their role as a public safety municipal worker; they’re going as … first responders to provide critical interventions in an emergency,” Clifford said.

“It’s under a contract relationship under the first responder agreements. That’s how they go to emergency medical calls, which is under the mandate of the emergency health services and the emergency health act.”

No data on firefighter vaccinations yet

Fire Chief Chris Bowcock directed all questions to Bryan, who said the intent of the policy was “to keep staff and the public safe, and we believe it strikes a balance that will achieve that.”

Jeff Clark, president of the Burnaby firefighters union, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Mike Hurley said he would have liked to have seen a full vaccine mandate for city staff, but it was legal advice that got in the way.

“At political levels, we’re not in the midst of all those talks that go on, but from what our senior management team tells us, the legal advice they’re getting is to follow the route that we’re going down,” Hurley said.

Since the city’s policy has not yet come into effect, he added that there’s no data on how many city employees, including firefighters, are holding out. And there may be no holdouts by Nov 29, he added.

“And hopefully that’s the case. I have very little patience for people who refuse to get vaccinated, unless they have a bona fide reason, like health or others under the Human Rights Act,” Hurley said.

Asked about potential patient concerns if an unvaccinated firefighter is responding to a medical call, Hurley said it’s “concerning for me, too.”

But Clifford questioned why the city is getting legal advice that appears to conflict with legal advice given to the province.

“We’ll see how all that plays out. Ontario did that too, and then they backed away from it. So obviously Ontario [officials] were getting different legal opinions as well,” Hurley said.

“This is all new ground for a lot of people, so there’s a lot of moving parts.”

Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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