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Ontario making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for long-term care workers

Ontario long-term care minister Rod Phillips said Friday it's now unacceptable for workers in long-term care homes to not be vaccinated against COVID-19. Meanwhile, Ontario logged 1,315 new cases of COVID-19 over the last two days.

Current policy allows unvaccinated workers to undergo regular COVID-19 testing

Currently, long-term care workers in Ontario who choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 can undergo regular antigen testing and attend a mandatory educational course. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Staff at Ontario long-term care homes must be vaccinated against COVID-19, the government announced Friday, 
reversing a previous vaccine-or-test policy it defended as recently as a few weeks ago. 

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the mandatory vaccination policy, set to come into place on Nov. 15, is needed to deal with the threat posed by the delta variant. 

"This measure is essential," he told reporters at a news conference.

Homes will also start randomly testing fully vaccinated staff, caregivers and visitors to detect breakthrough cases early.

Currently, workers in the sector are required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, as well as attending an educational course on the benefits of immunization. The initial announcement of that policy drew criticism from some physicians and health experts, who said those caring for those most vulnerable to the illness should be fully vaccinated.

Change 'should have happened sooner'

The Ontario Hospital Association, the Ontario Long-Term Care Association and AdvantAge Ontario, which represents not-for-profit and municipal homes, applauded the policy but said it should be applied across the health-care sector.

"This should have happened sooner, but we're happy it's here now and now we need to look at extending it because all congregate-care settings for seniors need to have this in place, assisted living, and in fact the whole health-care system," said AdvantAge Ontario CEO Lisa Levin.

"Let's say someone is working in long-term care and they refuse to get vaccinated, they can now go work in another health-care setting."

The NDP and the Liberals also said the announcement should have come much earlier, and should now be extended to all health-care and education workers.

"Opt-out tests should never have been on the table in the first place for any worker in close contact with vulnerable Ontarians," NDP deputy leader and long-term care critic Sara Singh said in a statement.

Candace Rennick, secretary treasurer of CUPE, told CBC News her union believes everyone who can be vaccinated should, but that employers need to work with staff who may be hesitant rather than taking a disciplinary approach. 

"We don't think that discipline or mass exodus of workers is what we need right now. Like I said, we have an unprecedented crisis at the bedside without a plan to replenish workers. That kind of a policy makes no sense."

Rennick says CUPE has been holding education sessions to encourage vaccination and has another one next week.

'We need to take the next step'

Speaking in late August, Phillips defended the province's original approach as a "great success" and said that more than 90 per cent of long-term care workers had opted to get the shots.

Asked why the government is changing it's approach now, Phillips said the province had reviewed home-by-home data that showed variations in vaccination rates. At one home, he said, under 40 per cent of workers had been vaccinated.

"We were not going to get to the level of vaccination that we needed to," he said.

"We need to take the next step."

The mandatory vaccination policy doesn't extend to visitors, although they will still have to show negative tests. Phillips said that may, however, change in the future.

Long-term care residents have had about three per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases, but account for 41 per cent of the deaths. There are currently 19 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

On Wednesday, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, noted that Ontario has seen a recent rise in outbreaks at long-term care facilities and that the province would examine ways to curb any further transmission of the virus from workers to residents.

Phillips said he's concerned about how mandatory vaccines will affect staffing, which has already been an issue during the pandemic, but vowed the government will keep an eye on the situation. "We will make sure homes have enough staffing," he said. 

7-day average of daily new cases down to 597

Meanwhile, Ontario logged 1,315 new cases of COVID-19 over the last two days.

The Ministry of Health published two days worth of pandemic data this morning because no updated figures were released on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a statutory holiday.

The seven-day rolling average of daily cases fell to 597, its lowest point in about five weeks.

Twenty more deaths were also reported over the two-day period, pushing the official toll to 9,743.

Here are some other key pandemic indicators and figures from the Ministry of Health's daily provincial update:

Newly reported school-related cases: 285 over two days, 87 per cent were students. Some 810 schools, or 16.7 per cent of Ontario's 4,844 publicly-funded schools, currently have at least one confirmed case. Five schools in the province are closed due to COVID-19.

Tests completed in the last 48 hours: 74,715, with a two-day positivity rate of 1.75 per cent.

Active cases: 4,969.

Patients in ICU with COVID-related illnesses: 163, with 117 needing a ventilator to breathe.

Vaccinations: 67,257 total doses were administered by public health units during the previous two days. Roughly 86.3 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 years or older have now received at least one dose of a vaccine, while about 81 per cent have received two doses.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp and The Canadian Press

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