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TNRD hits pause on vaccine policy

CAO said the decision comes as a result of changes to the status of the pandemic

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District has put “a pause” on its vaccine policy for all staff, employees, contractors and volunteers.

TNRD CAO Scott Hildebrand confirmed Thursday that the policy, slated to take effect Feb. 1, has been put on hold to give staff time to fully understand the changes – both federally and provincially – in regards to how they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday the most recent public health orders are up for review on Feb. 16 and if B.C. continues on its current trajectory some restrictions could be lifted — though she cautioned that any reopenings would be gradual.

“After much consideration, we just put a pause on the effective date,” Hildebrand told the Clearwater Times. “Given the constant changes and direction from the province, we felt it was right to make sure we have everything in place.”

The TNRD had announced the vaccine policy in December for its 175 employees, 200-plus volunteers and contractors, saying it was committed to the health and safety of those individuals.

He noted the TNRD has eight fire departments that are fully vaccinated. The Vavenby Fire Department had challenged the proposed vaccine mandate, saying it could lose more than 60 per cent of its members. It recently met with the TNRD over the issue.

“The key point is we are proud of our employees who have a vaccination rate of 98 per cent,” he said. “It’s also high within our fire departments.”

Fire chiefs were told of the decision to put the policy on hold Thursday. A post by Mike Savage, chief of the Blackpool Fire Rescue and administrative chief of Little Fort Fire, noted the recent changes by provincial health officials on the status of the pandemic have brought about discussions and recommendations that needed to be considered.

Firefighters are still encouraged to get vaccinated and emergency fire services program delivery will remain unchanged and at the current resource levels, the post said.

“We still feel strongly that vaccination is still our best way to protect our staff,” Hildebrand said.

Vavenby Volunteer Fire Department chief Philip Weber told the Times he was thankful the TNRD decided to pause the mandate for the time being.

“It was going to be sad to see a fire hall that has been running well, be knocked down by a government policy,” he said.

He added he hopes that if they do enforce a vaccine policy in the future, that the TNRD will find a way to replace the members on leave before the mandate is effective, instead of having a potential gap in service to the community.

The TNRD board will discuss a motion next month about whether or not to require directors to be vaccinated in order to attend meetings or visit the board office in person. Two regional politicians have said they are not vaccinated: Kamloops Coun. Denis Walsh, who sometimes fills in at the regional district as an alternate director, and Cache Creek Mayor Santo Talarico.

Henry reflected Friday on how B.C. moved through the waves of the pandemic from the early days of the initial response in March 2020 to the present. B.C. has gone through five distinct waves of COVID, including the Omicron variant, detected in November.

“We’re in a very different place than two years ago,” Henry said. “Remembering where we have been and what we have come through can help us put where we are today in perspective.”

In recent days, B.C. recorded some of the highest death tolls seen so far in the pandemic. Henry said 40 per cent of January deaths have been related to outbreaks in long-term care and most of the people dying outside of those outbreaks are older people who have underlying conditions or are unvaccinated.

“This virus, even in this form that it is now, does cause severe illness in some people,” Henry said. “We’ve had two people in their 40s who have died from COVID this week.”

With files from Cole Shisler

Thompson Nicola Regional District