Despite a high percentage of government employees now reporting their vaccinations, Minister John Streicker acknowledged Dec. 22 that a few Yukon communities are facing first responder shortages.
Streicker said just under 95 per cent of workers have confirmed they received their first dose of the vaccine, representing 60 additional people since the mandate was first implemented. Right now 31 applications for religious or medical exemptions are being processed.
The remainder of the government employees who have not attested are 106 full-time employees and 192 part-time or casual employees.
One of those employees is Tagish Volunteer Fire Department Chief Myron Penner.
Penner is both a firefighter and EMS responder in the community and said he decided not to submit an attestation because he doesn’t agree with the vaccine mandate.
“I don’t feel it’s right to get forced into something of this nature,” he said. “All the ones that chose to take the vaccination, they chose it either to travel or just to be protected because they thought the protection was necessary. But when the mandate came down, every single one of them said exactly the same thing, ‘This is not something to be forced.’”
He said his view is shared by a number of other people in Tagish, and between seasonal volunteers off for the winter and those on unpaid leave, the department that normally has a crew of seven in the summer now only has two active employees.
That means the community will need to rely on other services in Carcross and Marsh Lake for things like fire response and EMS.
“It now makes Tagish Volunteer Fire Department a nonfunctional fire department, which residents need to know because of their fire insurance,” he said. “There’s going to be a delayed response. That’s all there is to it.”
Penner said recruiting volunteers has always been difficult in the small community, and he encouraged people upset about his decision to step up and get involved. He said the members of the fire department on unpaid leave are hoping to wait out the mandate until the government pulls it back or allows rapid testing.
First responder shortages are also affecting the communities of Teslin and Pelly Crossing. On Dec. 22, Streicker said the government is working with the communities to try and maintain emergency services.
“We do know that there have been some volunteers who have not attested for EMS and fire across our communities,” he said. “In each one of those situations, we’re sitting down to work with that community to cover off that service – whether that is with additional support from Whitehorse or neighboring communities.”
Streicker said in some cases that may also mean trying to recruit new volunteers or make sure a medivac or additional ambulance is available. He said residents in communities should still be calling 911 dispatch in an emergency.
“There is a risk to keeping people in those frontline positions,” he added, “Yes, we are worried about the pressures that come when people step away from their volunteer position in our communities, but we’re also worried if there is the additional risk of COVID in those communities.”
Streicker was also asked on Dec. 22 if there was a spike in resignations or retirements due to the vaccine mandate.
He said the department had tried to determine that number, and initial numbers from the Public Service Commission identified about 12 cases that might be attributed to the vaccine mandate.
“There is a number, although it’s not a large number, but we’ll continue to monitor it,” he said.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org