Manitoba municipalities have a responsibility to step up and implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for their staff, says a rural councillor struggling to get a local policy off the ground.

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Manitoba municipalities have a responsibility to step up and implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for their staff, says a rural councillor struggling to get a local policy off the ground.

Steve Axworthy serves in the Rural Municipality of Victoria Beach, which has a population of around 400 and sits about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

He’s been pushing for a resolution on developing a policy that would either require confidential proof of vaccination or regular testing for all local RM employees and volunteers since late September. He wasn’t able to get it on the council agenda until Oct. 19’s meeting, where he moved the resolution but no other councillor would second the motion for a discussion and vote to follow.

"By not seconding the motion, all of those councillors essentially said, 'I don't want to be on the record with my with my position'... It's not acceptable," Axworthy told the Free Press on Friday.

"Because during a pandemic, where we have a viable vaccine that can protect our employees and protect our community, they will not go on the record to say whether or not they're for mandatory vaccines or not. And it is their right to say that they're not for it, and that’s fine, but you're elected to make a decision."

It’s a matter of liability, Axworthy said: the RM has a responsibility ensure the safety of both staff and visitors, and unlike the cities, it’s not unusual for a majority of civic staff members to have some face-to-face interaction with the wider community.

"Whereas, let's say, in Winnipeg or Toronto or Vancouver, you would have very clearly defined front-line staff who are the only employees that are dealing with the local community. In a rural setting, because you don't have a large workforce, most of those employees at some point in the day or in a week or a month are going to have either short or extended contact with residents," he said.

"So by bringing on a vaccine mandate... we're protecting our employees but moreso than that, we're protecting our residents."

 

Municipality staff currently aren’t required to align with the provincial mandate requiring vaccination or testing for front-line staff who have direct ongoing contact with vulnerable people.

While the City of Winnipeg has announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for front-line employees who have ongoing contact with vulnerable residents, many other Manitoba councils haven’t implemented similar policies.

However, there is some burgeoning interest, according to Manitoba Municipal Administrators Association executive director Adrienne Bestland.

"It’s hard being the first one… What we’re trying to provide our (chief administrative officers) and our councils was just information to make the decision that’s best for them," she said.

The association recently offered a webinar to RM council members to offer legal advice around the ramifications of mandatory vaccination policies, and how to go about creating such policies.

It surveyed the approximately 100 municipal staff registered for the webinar on how likely their municipalities were to implement vaccination policies. Of the 64 that answered, 61 per cent said it was very likely or likely to happen.

It hasn’t been easy trying to put together what a vaccine policy for an RM would look like, St. Andrews Mayor Joy Sul said. Putting the decision in the hands of individual municipalities all but ensures room for legal loopholes and anger from constituents comparing the rules in different locations, she added.

"(The province) mandates all the health rules, and that should include municipalities, it should be an equal playing field across the board," said Sul, who is fully vaccinated.

The idea hasn't been brought forward to St. Andrews council but the mayor would be open to the idea.

"I would support it. It’s such a contentious issue… but it’s a health issue," Sul said.

Meantime, Axworthy wants Manitoba municipalities to view vaccine policies as an urgent matter of public safety.

"Right now, rural municipalities are looking to say, 'We'll wait for someone else, we'll wait for someone else, we'll wait for someone else," he said.

"But at the end of the day, what we're really risking is our employees getting COVID or dying — and there's a greater fear of what happens if we lose one employee (over a vaccine mandate) than what happens if we lose one employee to the grave."

 

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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