Employers in Ontario’s public education and several key healthcare settings will need to have COVID-19 vaccination policies in place for staff in the coming weeks, the province announced Tuesday.
As the provincial government navigates a fourth wave of the pandemic, it issued a news release saying the policies are required to help combat the spread of the highly infectious delta variant as fall and winter approach.
Ontario will therefore remain in the final step of its “Roadmap to Reopen” plan, for now, pressing pause on further lifting remaining restrictions and workplace safety measures — despite surpassing vaccination targets. The province will also offer booster shots to certain vulnerable populations and expand eligibility for vaccination to children turning 12 this year.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, announced the new measures at a news conference in Toronto Tuesday afternoon.
“We are preparing aggressively for the fall. I’m sorry to say I think it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter,” he told reporters.
Dr. Moore has said he expects cases to rise further in the fall when people move indoors, particularly among youth and young adults who are the least-vaccinated demographics and will gather in classrooms in September.
Dr. Moore alluded to the possibility that further immunization measures could come later in the year if needed but didn’t state outright what those might look like, saying most of the policies he wants to see implemented are in place and more details will follow in the coming weeks.
“Any orders would be targeted, focused and time-limited,” he said. “We want to minimize disruption of our economy going forward and minimize disruption to our schools.”
Strict policies for hospitals, healthcare facilities
Dr. Moore has issued a directive to hospitals and community and home-care service providers to have strict vaccination and testing policies in place by Sept. 7 for all employees, staff, contractors, students and volunteers. Ambulance services will also need to have policies in place for paramedics.
The directive doesn’t make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory, but those who decline the shots will need to undergo regular antigen testing for the virus. It’s similar to one already in place in the province’s long-term care homes.
Staff at healthcare facilities will need to provide proof of full immunization against COVID-19 or a medical reason for not being vaccinated. Those who don’t get the shots will need to complete an education session about COVID-19 vaccines and will be routinely tested for the virus before coming to work.
Some Ontario hospitals such as Toronto’s University Health Network have already introduced staff vaccination policies along the same lines as the government’s plans.
Rules for schools, post-secondary institutions, high-risk settings
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education said it intends to implement a vaccination status disclosure policy for publicly funded school board employees, as well as staff in private schools and licensed child-care settings.
Asked why it took so long for a vaccination policy for education workers, Dr. Moore said, “We had a sudden drop off over the last several weeks, and quite honestly, we have to rebolster our efforts to immunize Ontarians.”
Dr. Moore said the province is making progress but “it’s just not quick enough.” The delta variant now accounts for 90 percent of detected cases and that hospitalization rates are rising, he said.
Dr. Moore also said he is in discussions with the Ministry of Education to discuss an immunization policy for students that would see parents report their children’s vaccination status so public health units can keep track in the event of possible outbreaks.
Those not vaccinated against the illness will be required to undergo frequent rapid antigen testing.
Tests will be required on-site or in advance at least once a week and could escalate to two to three times a week, Dr. Moore said.
Right now, tests are supplied by the federal government. As for whether individuals might eventually be required to pay for their own rapid tests, Dr. Moore said it wasn’t likely but he didn’t rule out the possibility.
In its news release, the province also noted that vaccination policies will be necessary for the following high-risk settings:
- Post-secondary institutions.
- Licensed retirement homes.
- Women’s shelters.
Congregate group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities, children’s treatment centres and other services for children with special needs, and licensed children’s residential settings.
The province also announced it will expand eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine to all youth turning 12 in 2021, citing the examples of Alberta and British Columbia, which made the same move several months ago and identified no associated risks.
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