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Hospital staff dressed in protective equipment standby as a patient is taken out of an ambulance at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital on March 29, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The head of Ontario’s hospital association says the province’s refusal to introduce a mandatory vaccination requirement for health care workers could prolong the pandemic and create unnecessary risk as hospitals attempt to make their own rules.

“Our sector is reeling, attempting to understand the best path forward in the absence of provincial action,” said Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association. “There is no clarity. In the absence of clarity, there is uncertainty – and even at times a chaotic situation.”

The Globe and Mail contacted more than three dozen hospitals this week in the wake of Premier Doug Ford’s decision and found all institutions except one have created their own mandatory vaccine rules that involve sanctioning or firing employees who don’t comply. Only a handful of staff at each institution are not in compliance with the vaccine requirements and hospitals say that staff departures are not impacting patient care. The findings run directly counter to Mr. Ford’s claims that introducing mandatory vaccination rules at hospitals could lead to tens of thousands of staff departures and a massive disruption to care delivery.

Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital introduced a vaccine mandate for employees in late October and as of this week, 95 per cent of employees and 99 per cent of physicians are fully vaccinated, spokesperson Jennifer Specht wrote in an e-mail. Anyone not in compliance as of Dec. 9 “will no longer be employed or exercise privileges here,” she wrote.

“Our policy is designed to address the significant patient safety risk that introduction of the COVID-19 virus in our hospital workforce would put on our ability to deliver safe, high-quality and consistent care,” Ms. Specht wrote.

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Unity Health, which operates Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and Providence Healthcare, said that as of Nov. 4, employees were required to submit proof of a second dose or be placed on unpaid leave or have privileges suspended. Of the hospital’s 8,550 full- and part-time staff, 171 have been placed on unpaid leave. Fewer than five of the hospital’s 850 physicians were placed on leave. The hospital declined to provide a specific number, citing confidentiality.

In Sarnia, Bluewater Health’s vaccine mandate came into effect this week and 99 per cent are in compliance, spokesperson Julie Oosterman wrote in an e-mail. Only 18 staff, including four who work in full-time clinical roles, are not in compliance, which has resulted in terminations. Ms. Oosterman said the hospital usually has more than 20 people calling in sick every day, “so a departure of 18 is manageable.”

The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario introduced a vaccine mandate in conjunction with Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Of the nearly 4,000 employees who work at CHEO, nine full-time staff are not in compliance. An additional 14 part-time and casual staff have also not complied. Those unvaccinated staff also work at other health care organizations.

The ability of unvaccinated staff to find employment at health care institutions without a vaccine mandate is one of the central reasons a blanket province-wide policy is necessary, OHA president Mr. Dale said.

“The best way to do this is with the full backing of the province of Ontario and the force of law. It eliminates variability, it eliminates legal risk, it eliminates labour-relations risk,” Mr. Dale said.

Prior to Mr. Ford’s decision, the OHA had submitted a letter in support of mandatory vaccine rules signed by 120 of the province’s 141 hospitals. Mr. Dale said several other hospitals wrote their own letters in support of a mandate.

Earlier this week, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province had heard from some hospitals who expressed concern over the introduction of a provincewide vaccine mandate. She did not identify the hospitals.

Mr. Dale said he is unaware of any institutions that are not in support of the OHA position supporting vaccine mandates.

“This is the best way in the health care setting to ensure everything is being done to end this pandemic once and for all,” Mr. Dale said.

The only hospital contacted by The Globe that does not have a vaccine mandate in place is Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. In an e-mail, Craig DuHamel, vice-president of communications and stakeholder relations, said the hospital is encouraging staff to be vaccinated and requiring regular COVID-19 testing for those who aren’t. He said 95 per cent of staff are vaccinated and 100 per cent of physicians are vaccinated.

“Staffing in health care right now is a challenge, and while we are serious about mitigating the risk of COVID exposures, we also have to ensure we’re meeting the care needs of cancer, cardiac and many other patients who have been waiting for their procedures throughout the pandemic,” Mr. DuHamel said in an e-mail. “We do not want to have to tell patients they cannot have their cancer removed because we don’t have enough staff.”

On Friday, a spokesperson for Ms. Elliott declined to answer questions about the decision to not introduce a vaccine mandate for health care workers. In an e-mail, the spokesperson said Ms. Elliott’s and Mr. Ford’s comments on mandatory vaccines made earlier in the week stand.

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