The debate on how the District of Muskoka should implement a vaccination policy resulted in just under an hour and a half of back and forth dialogue.

The discussion was about whether or not to make it mandatory for staff to be vaccinated or not.

In the end, council decided that all staff will need to have proof of vaccination as approved by Health Canada, or proof of exemption because of a medical reason of other Human Rights Code, or proof of completion of the education program that will be put forward by the district by November 29th. 

The educational program will detail how COVID-19 vaccines work, how they were developed, the benefits of being inoculated and the risk posed by not getting the shot.

For staff members that aren’t vaccinated by November 1st, they will have to submit to being tested every 48 hours at their own expense and outside working hours. 

The policy includes all district employees, contractors, volunteers, students, members of council, and committee members not covered by existing provincial legislation or directives. However, those working in long-term care, childcare, or paramedic services are already under mandates done by their respective ministries, so the district policy doesn’t apply to them.

“This recommendation is consistent with the approach taken by a number of other Ontario municipalities and is the proposed approach in a number of the local lower-tier municipalities,” the report reads.

While not specific with what happens if an employee is in non-compliance, the report states “culpable non-compliance with this policy may result in progressive discipline up to and including termination.”

“Employee relations issues are anticipated to arise following the adoption of a workplace vaccination policy regardless of type,” it goes on to say in the report. “Ongoing discussions with the unions will continue to take place to assist in addressing concerns.”

Multiple councillors, most notably Councillor Paul Wiancko of the Township of Georgian Bay, were originally not in favour of the motion, preferring vaccinations be made mandatory. Wiancko said he doesn’t want to cater to “anti-vaxxers” saying the time for them to research the pros and cons of getting vaccinated is over. 

“We should only accept the best for our staff,” he said, reaffirming that the best option is to make vaccination mandatory.

Councillor Graydon Smith of the Town of Bracebridge argued that staffing levels need to be factored in when deciding what to do. He wondered aloud what would happen if a mandatory vaccination policy is put in place. 

“We’re going to have a hell of a problem,” he bluntly said. 

The district’s Manager of Human Resources Christine Glover said there are currently 30 vacancies for municipal positions. A voluntary survey was done by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) of district staff and 15-percent of staff didn’t respond. Glover said assuming half of the 80 people that didn’t respond along with the ones that responded they don’t plan to get inoculated aren’t vaccinated, the district would be at a 20-percent vacancy rate.

“That has to be a factor,” Smith said.

SMDHU’s survey did show a high number of district employees are vaccinated: 100-percent of district employees in childcare, 92-percent of paramedic services, 91-percent of district council, 86-percent of staff at The Pines Long-Term Care Home, and 79-percent of “other” municipal employees. 

The vaccination policy will cost the district about $40,000. The report states that staff have recommended hiring an additional Health, Safety and Wellness Coordinator for the next six months. Staff expect the cost of regular testing to be “minimal” based on the results of a survey done of staff.

Wiancko called the newly created position a “baby-sitter” and questioned what will happen in six months when the person’s contract expires. 

After all the discussion, the motion did get unanimous support from council

The move to implement this policy follows a letter in September from SMDHU’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner who “strongly recommended” that all employers in its medical region create a workplace vaccination policy.