Pressure is mounting on Premier Doug Ford to embrace mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for school and health-care workers after NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was forced to flip-flop on the issue.
One day after deriding Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca for promoting compulsory jabs for health-care and education workers, Horwath reversed course Thursday in a video statement following blowback from her MPPs, who face a provincial election in less than a year.
“I made a mistake suggesting a mandatory vaccine policy during a global pandemic should take a back seat to Charter rights. I regret the comment. I was wrong,” Horwath said in reference to remarks she made on CBC News Network’s “Power and Politics.”
“My fight and my focus must be on keeping people healthy and safe. This unprecedented time requires unprecedented actions.”
On the show, Horwath said that “unlike Mr. Del Duca, I don’t take lightly people’s Charter rights.”
Ford has repeatedly rejected mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, saying he prefers a voluntary approach and targeted strategies, despite concerns in the medical community about a fourth wave this fall driven by the more highly contagious Delta variant that is increasingly spreading among the unvaccinated.
“It’s a public health emergency,” said epidemiologist Todd Coleman of Wilfrid Laurier University, who advocates making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for children aged 12 and up to attend school — as is required for vaccinations against measles and several other communicable diseases.
“The original point of lockdowns and things of that nature was to pretty much do a full stop on transmission,” Coleman said. “And now we’ve found something else, the vaccine, but we’re not requiring it.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said earlier this week that COVID-19 vaccinations would not be made mandatory for school staff or students “at this point.”
A senior government official, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations, has told the Star it is unlikely any such order would be made before next June’s election.
The Liberals pounced on Horwath’s gaffe with a fundraising appeal from Del Duca.
“To my shock, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath this week sided with Doug Ford against mandatory vaccination in health care and education, and vaccine certification,” the Grit leader wrote.
“She’s defending a small fringe group of anti-vaxxers and it puts Ontarians at risk when experts say COVID-19 cases are expected to rise this September.”
Internally, New Democrats were incredulous about their leader’s misstep.
Respected former Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo retweeted a video clip of Horwath on “Power and Politics” with the comment, “YIKES!? Children already have to have vaccinations for school. Speak up, NDP MPPs. Save yourselves.”
DiNovo’s tweet was widely disseminated among current New Democratic MPPs at Queen’s Park.
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In a tweet Wednesday night, New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus said, “I just wrote to the party and told them they better push (Horwath) to walk back her vaccination comments because the (Liberals) will drive a truck over our party for such idiocy.”
Horwath did just that on Thursday.
“I fully support mandatory vaccination in health care and education, based on science and public health priorities,” she said. “I should have made that position clearer, much earlier, in support of the health and safety of the most vulnerable among us: seniors, people with disabilities, people who are sick, and children who can’t yet get their vaccines.”
No COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for children under 12, although trials are underway with results expected this fall. The COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer is the only shot so far approved for children aged 12 and older.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said he supports mandatory vaccinations for health-care and school workers, unless they have medical exemptions.
He called on Ford to “seek scientific and public health guidance on including the COVID-19 vaccine on the list of mandatory vaccines for eligible students 12 years of age and above.”
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CP24 that he expects COVID-19 vaccines will eventually be put on the list of mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren, but not until they have more “highway miles,” meaning more long-term data on their usage and effects.
Bogoch noted that there is “a low but not zero per cent chance or risk of myocarditis” — inflammation of the heart — from COVID-19 vaccinations.
University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman said teachers should be vaccinated against COVID-19, given that there are no vaccines yet approved for children under 12.
“When it comes to the safety of students or the rights of teachers, I would say the safety of students really needs to come first,” Bowman said, but questioned what would happen to the careers of teachers who refuse to be vaccinated.
He urged authorities to try every avenue to pursue voluntary vaccination before going mandatory, and said data on teacher vaccination levels is needed.
On the question of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for children, he said one test will be the severity of a potential fourth wave, its impacts on the school system and concerns from parents about “the absence of long-term data” on the vaccine in children.
“It has to be proportional to the situation,” Bowman added. “In ethics, it’s not just what decision you make, it’s how you make the decision.”
Coleman, who previously served with the public health unit for Middlesex-London, told the Star that COVID-19 is “more prevalent” than any of the diseases, such as the measles, for which children must now be vaccinated.
“It seems like there’s a little bit of dismissiveness about mandating COVID-19 vaccines right now and that plays to a certain political base that is more prone to be unvaccinated,” he said.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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