Local health-care and education officials are welcoming a new COVID-19 vaccination policy issued by the Ontario government, however some say they believe the policy should also have included a vaccine mandate as opposed to just mandatory disclosure and mandatory testing.
The directive, made public Tuesday, says that employers in health and education will need to have policies that ask staff to disclose their vaccination status, with proof of full vaccination or a documented medical exemption.
Those who aren’t vaccinated will need to take an education session and be subject to regular tests, said Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
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The provincial directive will take effect on Sept. 7 covering hospitals, ambulance services and community and home-care service providers. It will be similar to one already in place in long-term care homes, and mirrors staff policies introduced by some hospitals, including London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC).
It comes as the province sees notable spread of COVID-19 in high-risk settings like long-term care homes and hospitals.
A similar directive for employees at all publicly funded school boards and licensed child-care settings is being finalized by the Ministry of Education.
There are also plans for policies in other high-risk settings, like post-secondary institutions, retirement homes, congregate group homes, women’s shelters and more, according to the province.
Ontario government mandating COVID-19 vaccine policies for high-risk settings
“It’s welcome news,” Dr. Adam Dukelow, interim chief medical officer for LHSC, said of the provincial announcement.
“It’s an important step as we work within hospitals, but across the health-care sector as well as the education sector, to battle the pending fourth wave of COVID.”
LHSC has already had policies in place mandating attestation and education for those who are unvaccinated, “so we’re a little down the road on that stage in the process,” he said.
However, he notes the provincial directive also mandates testing for those who haven’t been immunized.
“We have some work to do on the details around that,” including what type of test will be used and where it will be done, he said.
Right now, roughly 80 to 90 per cent of LHSC staff are vaccinated, Dukelow said, adding that a more accurate picture is expected over the next several weeks as attestation is completed.
For its part, the Ontario Hospital Association said it was “pleased” to see the government lay out basic requirements for vaccination policies.
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In issuing its directive, however, the province stopped short of mandating vaccines for workers in high-risk settings, something health worker groups and other advocates have been calling for.
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In a joint statement Wednesday, the heads of the province’s unions representing elementary, secondary, Catholic and French teachers said the province’s plan fell “well short of what’s needed” and that there were too few details.
The unions reiterated their support for mandatory vaccinations in schools, with accommodations for those with medical or religious exemptions, saying that “everyone working in, or attending a school who is eligible” to get the shot, and can do so safely, should.
“A mandatory vaccination program with proper provincial direction would provide greater protection against the spread of COVID-19 in school communities and protect students, especially those under the age of 12, as well as others who are unable to vaccinate or do not have access,” the statement read.
The unions also called on the province to ensure other pandemic measures are put in place, including improved ventilation, robust testing and tracing, smaller class sizes and masking for staff and students.
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“The vast majority of the students that we teach are unvaccinated at this point because there is no vaccination plan for 11-year-olds and under, and the majority of elementary students are under the age of 12,” said Craig Smith, president of the Thames Valley local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Children born in 2009 became eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday.
“We have a situation where 90 per cent of the teachers and other educators are vaccinated, but 90 per cent of our students that we teach are not. That is really the trick here, is how we can build a wall around those folks to keep them safe? It’s one thing to open schools. What we want to do is keep schools open. We also want to keep kids and staff at school.”
In a statement, the head of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the policy would help boost vaccination rates eventually, but said it came too close to the school year to be wholly effective.
Meanwhile, the Opposition New Democrats criticized the Ford government for taking “half-measures” instead of implementing a vaccine mandate for high-risk front-line jobs.
“No unvaccinated person should be providing health care to our most vulnerable, no unvaccinated person should be in a classroom with our kids,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “It’s completely unbelievable that the premier and the government don’t see this as a priority.”
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association has also called for mandatory vaccinations for all direct care providers.
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The directive from the province is a “minimal standard” and employers can enact their own stricter policies if they see fit, the government says.
“Places can, and arguably should, if they wish, do more to actually push closer to what might actually be true mandated vaccine in a workplace or in a health setting,” said Dr. Alex Summers, associate medical officer of health for the London-Middlesex region.
“We are certainly seeing collective exploration of how far things can go to make sure that these places where we gather are safe,” he added. “I think there is going to be an increase in comfort that, especially with the Delta strain, the only way we can ensure safe in-person gatherings, particularly indoors, is if everybody there is vaccinated.”
A majority of recent cases in London-Middlesex and Ontario have been among the unvaccinated.
Data from the Middlesex-London Health Unit shows that 86.7 per cent of cases and 92.8 per cent of hospitalizations over the last six weeks have involved people who were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
“Most folks who are maybe not getting vaccinated at this point may or may not have their mind changed by one of those educational sessions,” Summers said.
“It really comes down to, you know, even beyond those educational sessions, how do we make sure it’s actually required for people to attend and do certain things?”
–With files from The Canadian Press, and Matthew Trevithick and Andrew Graham of Global News
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