Ontario pharmacists, doctors, report rise in harassment surrounding COVID-19 vaccines
OTTAWA -- Less than one week after Ontario began enforcing its vaccine certificate, pharmacists and family physicians say they’re receiving more harassment from anti-vaxxers.
“There’s no question we’ve come across a number of precarious scenarios where there’s been abuse or harassment and I think that’s a shared concern across the healthcare system,” Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association said.
At the Kingsway Health Centre in the Ottawa suburb of Manotick, Dr. Alykhan Abdulla says his staff have faced harassment for multiple reasons, including not prescribing Ivermectin, offering the COVID-19 vaccine, enforcing mask requirements, and not writing medical exemptions for patients who don’t qualify.
“People are fed up and so they need to get their anger, their frustration and their uncertainty, and they need to put it out on somebody and unfortunately it ends up being the healthcare professionals, the front office staff, the doctors,” Abdulla said.
According to Dr. Abdulla, it is taking a toll on staff.
“Every day, someone threatens to want to quit one of my clinics. They’re saying, ‘I can’t stand this anymore, handle this anymore, I need an opportunity to take some stress leave.’ That’s really hard.”
The phenomenon is happening across Ontario.
“We had one person come in to harass the people getting the shot; telling them they're all fools and harming themselves, all government puppets, among other swear words, to the staff who were administering (doses),” Mina Maseh, owner of the Victoria Commons Pharmacy in Scarborough, said.
Maseh says the majority of customer interactions have been positive, but the stress from the increased harassment recently forced one of his assistants to quit.
“As a pharmacist, it gets very stressful. We feel an unbelievable amount of burnout. I personally had a friend die from COVID-19 and about four long-term patients who we knew quite well. We know by vaccinating we're saving lives but also feel like at times we are being abused and have no way to fight back,” Maseh said.
CTV News spoke with more than 50 pharmacists in Ottawa for this story; roughly 20 per cent said they had recently been victim to some form of harassment at work.
Many declined to speak on the record fearing possible retaliation from customers.
One pharmacist working in Orléans told CTV News she had been offered $200 to falsify a vaccine receipt, while another working on Rideau Street said she had been screamed at by customers for offering the vaccine.
“Myself and some of my colleagues have also been approached to falsify vaccine records and that is very, very upsetting,” Kathleen Leach, a pharmacist and the owner of Sutherland’s Pharmacy in Hamilton said.
Leach says she’s had customers swear at her and her staff when administering the vaccine, and notes there’s been an uptick in people feeling forced to get the vaccine.
“Since the vaccine mandate has come in is a number of people who have come in to get vaccinated under protest,” she continued. “[The swearing] really upset the staff here for the entire day because it’s not our issue to make you want to do things that you don’t want to do.”
Abdulla says his clinic now has daily debriefing meetings, prepping the staff for issues they might encounter and discussing the feelings of burnout; meetings that until recently were only required weekly.
“We’re exhausted and we’re reaching our end of the rope. There’s going to be a price to pay, I don’t know when that price is. I hope it doesn’t happen during the pandemic, I hope we get the support we need,” he said.
According to the Ontario Pharmacists Association, these incidents have been increasing and there are concerns about what that means for health-care professionals.
“This is not unique in some respects; you always end up with the isolated cases of it, but we are seeing it escalate. I think we’re seeing the heated rhetoric become much more targeted towards businesses and healthcare providers and in some cases it can be violent,” Bates said.
Despite the challenges, Abdulla has a simple request for those seeking treatment or medical advice from those on the front line.
“Please be kind to one another because we know we’re all going through a hard time,” he said.