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Ontario LTC minister defends shot-or-test policy as companies mandate COVID vaccines

Ontario's long-term care minister is defending the province's decision not to mandate COVID-19 shots for nursing-home workers as some of the largest operators in the sector introduce stricter policies.

Comments come after a group of private LTC chains announced unvaccinated staff would be placed on unpaid leave

Ontario's long-term care minister Rod Phillips says immunization rates among long-term care staff have risen to more than 90 per cent since the rules took effect months ago. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario's long-term care minister is defending the province's decision not to mandate COVID-19 shots for nursing-home workers as some of the largest operators in the sector introduce stricter policies.

Rod Phillips says the province's policy guidelines for the sector have been a "great success" so far.

Those rules see employees declare their vaccination status and require regular testing for unvaccinated people, who must also take a course on the benefits of immunization.

Phillips says immunization rates among long-term care staff have risen to more than 90 per cent since the rules took effect months ago.

His comments come after a group of major long-term care chains announced unvaccinated staff would be placed on unpaid leave if they don't get their shots by Oct. 12.

Owners in 'best position' to strengthen policies: Phillips

Chartwell Retirement Residences, Extendicare, Responsive Group Inc., Revera Inc., and Sienna Senior Living said the stronger policy is necessary as the more contagious delta variant spreads amid a fourth wave of infections.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association and others in the sector have also called for a mandatory provincial policy to boost staff immunization rates.

Phillips says operators are in the "best position" to strengthen their own policies, adding that the government is aiming
to see 100 per cent of staff vaccinated. While he defended the current policy, he said the province will look at unspecified ways "innovate again" to get rates higher. 

"We're going to keep looking at what we need to do to make sure that we keep our residents safe," he told reporters on Friday.

Long-term care homes were devastated by outbreaks and deaths during the pandemic.

In Ontario, more than a third of people who have died from COVID-19 were long-term care residents, with 3,793 killed by  the disease as of Thursday and thousands more infected. Infections have dropped since the winter, when immunizations began for long-term care residents and staff, but the province listed five active COVID-19 outbreaks as of Friday. 

The province announced this month that workers in hospitals and other high-risk settings would have to follow similar vaccination policies to those in long-term care.

Several hospitals have since announced they will fully mandate the shots this fall and those still unvaccinated by the cutoff date may be out of a job.

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