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Vaccinating Volunteers: An Illusory Dilemma

In early September of this year, the Region of Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, circulated a letter to many local community service organizations that included the following, “We need everyone, including all community service providers, and all staff and volunteers to get vaccinated.” This was not a directive, but rather, it was an appeal to all involved in community service to take a positive, decisive step designed to gain the upper hand on the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Notwithstanding Peel’s ‘fully vaccinated’ record of 85.3% for age 12 and older – as of November 17 (with current focus on children ages 5 to 11, now that vaccines have been federally approved), and a clear indication that vaccinations work (i.e. Ontario’s ‘Science Table’ reporting that unvaccinated adults are 5 times more likely to get infected; 11 times more likely to be hospitalized; 26 times more likely to be admitted to ‘intensive care’, than are those who are fully vaccinated, with 0.01 of one per cent serious side effects noted in 60 million doses administered in Canada), stakeholders in the community service sector are still facing a fundamental dilemma as to whether to require vaccination among volunteers.

Not surprisingly, there exist various schools of thought, largely based on the freedom of residents in Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon not to be vaccinated. Vaccination, with certain cautiously legislated exceptions, remains voluntary, and requiring (or even asking) prospective volunteers to be vaccinated seems to be an intrusion upon keeping the engagement essentially... voluntary.

Twenty months into the Pandemic, we have been witness to initially a reactive community response, succeeded by proaction on the part of all levels of government hugely supported, even spearheaded, by community service organizations. An historic, heroic response, by any definition. A popular description of this is typified by the word ‘pivot’. So many organizations and individuals, especially volunteers, ‘pivoted’ from fear and inertia to decisive response and forward-thinking action. The latter certainly is far from over, as we see a ‘new normal’ on the horizon that is dawn, not dusk.

Here and now, however, we’ve somehow cast ourselves into a dilemma about vaccination. This makes the author mindful of the classic temptation to set up arguments against volunteering, constructing an invisible barrier to entry. That ‘barrier’ is just as illusory as is the dilemma!

Let’s consider the requirement of a ‘Police Check’ in the volunteer sector. Its role by now is well recognized and accepted. As part of screening, it isn’t popular, yet the benefit (reduction of risk) is well established. The watchword is safety, complemented by protection.

Turning to vaccination against COVID-19, these same words are in the centre of the conversation. Then, add another important word: CONFIDENCE. Vaccines are designed to protect and promote safety when we engage in the physical side of social interaction (family, friends, co-workers, the general public). It’s been often said that the best volunteering takes place in person, involving those whom we assist, plus enjoying togetherness as a team. Virtual, remote volunteering during the Pandemic, while necessary, has been tough for most of us. Under the umbrella of protection and safety through vaccination, volunteers are able to develop and sustain the confidence needed to maximize the joy of a volunteering experience.

From the perspective of a community service organization, vaccination with its benefits opens up programming and enables confident volunteer recruitment, engagement, and the prospect of all important retention. Granted, amidst a ‘new normal’, but just think of the darker alternative.

As Dr. Loh also pointed out in his letter, even with vaccination, precautions are recommended (masking in certain situations, physical distancing to render the risk of viral transmission minimal). However, for many, what was initially an imposition has become routine. Has the dilemma over requiring volunteers to be vaccinated been resolved? Each community service organization must decide, and Volunteer MBC as the local volunteer centre has taken the important step of including ‘Proof of Vaccination’ as an available requirement in our online form for organizations to submit volunteer positions on ou Online Volunteer Referral System.

In the long term, we may have to live with COVID-19 as endemic, as opposed to ideally ending it. Some health experts argue that we missed our chance early on, but in terms of the future and the role of vaccination, Senator Stan Kutcher of Nova Scotia perhaps best sums it up when he urges Canadians to look upon vaccination as “part of a healthy lifestyle” (much like sleep, exercise, proper nutrition).

Why not PART OF HEALTHY VOLUNTEERING?

Robert MacFarlane
Robert is Volunteer MBC's Consultant, Referral Services.