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Ontario reviewing COVID-19 vaccine mandate for long-term care workers, minister says

Ontario is reviewing its policy requiring long-term care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the minister responsible for the sector said on Thursday. 

Province reports 1,066 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 41 more deaths on Thursday

Nurse Ashley De Lumen attends to a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of Humber River Hospital, in Toronto, on Jan. 25. Of the 1,066 hospitalizations reported Thursday, 302 people are in intensive care units.  (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario is reviewing its policy requiring long-term care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the minister responsible for the sector said on Thursday. 

Paul Calandra said the rule — which says workers must have had two doses and a third by mid-March — is being looked at as the government reviews all of its sector-specific vaccination policies and other pandemic measures.

"We're taking a look at everything right now," Calandra said at the legislature. "The government is in the process [of]  reviewing everything: mandates, both long-term care home and other restrictions across government, so that's going to be part of that."

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, said recently that he wanted to end workplace COVID-19 vaccination policies by March 1, when Ontario's vaccine certificate system for many indoor public spaces is set to end.

On Thursday, he said those policies might now end after March 1 as the province works with relevant sectors. Moore isn't responsible for lifting the long-term care mandate but indicated he was open to discussing with Calandra the possibility of ending it, given the high levels of vaccination in the homes.

"I have to celebrate how well we've done in the long-term care sector," Moore said at a news conference on Thursday.

"At this point, I'm absolutely supportive of working with the minister to reflect on their current rate of vaccination and the risk in the community and review whether that mandate of a third dose in workers should be maintained."

Calandra didn't say if he was considering any specific date to end the long-term care staff mandate. He said the sector is "moving in a good direction" with vaccinations and said keeping residents safe is a priority, along with eventually lifting restrictions on visits.

"Ultimately, any decision that we make on that is going to be based on keeping residents safe and allowing greater access," he said.

Mask mandate to remain for now

Meanwhile, with Ontario set to continue its phased reopening on March 1, Moore said mask requirements will remain in place for the time being.

Moore said directives and instructions to health-care providers that were temporarily put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will also stay in place for now.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore says masking remains 'an important tool in our tool box,' in the fight against COVID-19. (AnaLysiSStudiO/Shutterstock)

Moore said given positive trends in public health indicators and the province's high vaccination rate, health officials are actively reviewing all directives to health-care providers, and hope to provide an update in the coming weeks.

"I know that I signalled my hope that we may be able to [review and end these measures] by March 1 in alignment with the next steps of the province's reopening, but it may take a little longer as we continue to work with the relevant sectors to ensure that there are no gaps in guidance as we look to lift these measures in the near future," Moore said.

"The eventual lifting of these directives and instructions reflects a move toward regular operations that will continue to ensure staff, students, clients, residents and patients are protected," he said.

Moore said masking remains "an important tool in our tool box," and even when it's no longer required in public policy it will continue to help reduce transmission and protect those recovering from illness, their close contacts and those who may be more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection.

"Some in our communities may even choose to continue wearing them regularly and we need to be respectful of individual choices once masking is no longer required," Moore said.

1,066 people hospitalized with COVID-19

On Thursday, the province reported 1,066 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 41 more deaths linked to the virus.

That is down from 1,106 the day before and from 1,342 at the same time last week.

According to the Ministry of Health, about 49 per cent of those admitted to hospital were seeking treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, while 51 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive for the virus.

Of the hospitalizations reported, 302 people are in intensive care units. About 74 per cent were admitted to intensive care specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons and tested positive. 

The number of ICU patients dropped by 17 on Thursday, down from 319 the day before and 356 one week ago.

The 41 additional deaths reported by the province Thursday push the official death toll to 12,347.

There are 84 long-term care homes, or about 13 per cent of the province's homes, currently listed as having active COVID-19 outbreaks.

Ontario isn't reporting data on COVID-19 cases in schools, but two schools were closed on Wednesday for operational reasons.

With files from The Canadian Press

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