Ontario will mandate vaccines for hospital and long-term-care workers and begin targeted COVID-19 booster shots while keeping current pandemic restrictions indefinitely, the Star has learned.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic’s fourth wave, Dr. Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health, will announce the sweeping measures next Tuesday, including a pause on any further reopening of the economy.
“The watchword is caution,” said a senior Progressive Conservative government official, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations
“We’re trying to be cautious. Nobody wants to lock down the economy again,” the official said as Ontario recorded 510 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the vast majority of which were among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people.
To that end, Moore will use his authority to issue a “vaccine mandate directive” for doctors, nurses, and “anyone patient-facing” working in hospitals, long-term-care homes, and in home-care.
“You will be asked to get your shots and if you haven’t, you will be asked why not. If you don’t have it, you will need a medical exemption,” said a second high-ranking government official.
“There will be a requirement for an education session (on the merits of vaccines) if you refuse to be vaccinated,” the official added.
“If you still continue to refuse, you will be required to get regularly tested (for COVID-19) twice a week,” the insider said, noting those who don’t get their shots could be transferred to other duties so they don’t deal directly with patients.
A third senior government official emphasized that “nobody is getting fired” for not getting vaccinated.
“We already don’t have enough nurses … and PSWs (personal support workers),” the third source said, acknowledging fears of an exodus of staffers but expressing hope education efforts are fruitful.
While Premier Doug Ford had reservations about the vaccine mandate due to concerns about civil liberties and privacy, Moore convinced him it was the right way to go.
“The premier and the doctor are in constant daily contact,” the third insider said.
But two sources said Long Term Care Minister Rod Phillips played a key role in the change after undertaking a province-wide “surprise inspection” tour of nursing homes.
“Phillips took it upon himself to do it and we’re glad he did,” said the second source, noting the minister’s unannounced visits with inspectors from his department were illuminating.
“He found pockets (of unvaccinated staff) in LTC homes. In some places it was only 60 per cent vaccinated. That’s concerning.”
The nursing home revelations came even though, overall, 91 per cent of staff and 99 per cent of residents are vaccinated.
Of Ontario’s 9,416 pandemic deaths since March 2020, 3,985 were residents of long-term-care homes and 10 were workers.
Also on Tuesday, Moore will unveil a new booster program that will begin dispensing third shots as soon as this month.
“As a first step it’s for vulnerable elderly people and the immunocompromised, such as cancer patients,” the second insider said.
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“This is targeted and not for the broader population at this time. We want to follow the scientific advice and evidence.”
The first official conceded vaccines are not quite a pandemic panacea — because even those fully vaccinated can still get COVID-19, though they are far less likely to be hospitalized.
“It’s a rain jacket, it’s not a Kevlar vest,” said the first insider.
On Friday, Phillips told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning that “booster shots are going to be an important part of continuing to protect our long-term-care residents.”
“I’ve spoken to our chief medical officer about that a number of times,” the minister said.
Earlier this week, Moore said “people who are unvaccinated are approximately eight times more likely to get infected with COVID-19, compared to fully vaccinated individuals.”
“Unvaccinated adults, 60 years of age and older are approximately 15 times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, compared to those fully vaccinated. So if you haven’t, roll up your sleeves to get your shot,” the top doctor said.
While Moore had indicated Ontario would by next week achieve his threshold for fully reopening with 80 per cent having had one shot and 75 per cent with both shots, that liberalization is now on hold.
That means step three capacity restrictions will continue with limits of up to 100 people for outdoor social gatherings and up to 25 people indoors.
Restaurants will have to retain safe distances between tables, retailers will also have to ensure physical distancing in their shops, and gyms will be kept at half capacity.
Similarly, there will still be restrictions on how many people can be in theatres, cinemas, concerts, museums, casinos, and bingo halls.
“We’ve seen an uptick in cases and we’ve seen an uptick in hospitalizations, so we are going to roll things out in a prudent and responsible manner,” said the second insider.
Also next week, Moore will send a letter “signalling his support for colleges and universities” to continue their efforts to make vaccines mandatory on campus in the wake of moves by Western University and others.
However, Ford remains opposed to a provincial proof of vaccination certificate despite calls from the New Democrats, Liberals, Greens, business groups like the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and doctors’ and nurses’ associations.
“The government at present has not been reviewing any passport for internal purposes,” Moore told reporters earlier this week before Ottawa announced its plans for a vaccination passport.
“We’re certainly working with the federal government,” the doctor said.
Indeed, Tory sources insisted Ford “welcomed” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pre-election announcement of a national vaccine passport system.
They say an Ontario-specific card would duplicate federal efforts.
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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