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Paramedics transfer patients to the emergency room triage but have no choice but to leave them in the hallway due to an at capacity emergency room at the Humber River Hospital in Toronto on Jan. 25.The Canadian Press

Requirements that Ontario’s colleges, universities and hospitals have COVID-19 immunization policies that force employees to get their shots or face regular testing could soon be scrapped, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health says.

But many hospitals that imposed their own stricter rules after Premier Doug Ford refused to implement a provincewide vaccination mandate for health care staff say they intend to keep their policies in place.

On Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said his goal was to scrap the province’s requirements for these immunization policies by March 1, when Ontario intends to lift most of its other remaining pandemic restrictions – including its vaccine passport rules.

“We do think the highest risk is behind us, that we’re heading into a lower-risk environment and that the need for vaccination policies, across Ontario sectors, whether it’s health or colleges and universities, is no longer necessary,” Dr. Moore told reporters on Thursday.

He said discussions are under way on how to lift the provincial directives, imposed last summer, that require hospitals and postsecondary institutions, as well as other high-risk settings such as retirement homes and women’s shelters, to implement these immunization policies. The policies do not, strictly speaking, mandate vaccinations, but require staff or students to get immunized or face education sessions and regular tests.

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However, institutions could also choose to leave their rules in place, Dr. Moore said, acknowledging that some may feel it is too early to lift them. Many hospitals went further and made COVID-19 shots mandatory, firing staff who refused to get them. Dr. Moore said it would also be up to individual institutions whether to rehire any staff.

The Canadian Press asked more than a dozen of the Ontario hospitals that imposed stricter vaccine mandates if they would be lifting them as the province removes its vaccine certificate system next month, and all said no.

“We are not out of the pandemic yet,” said Cambridge Memorial Hospital’s president and CEO, Patrick Gaskin. “Right now, it is a further layer of safety within the organization and assures our patients that everyone surrounding their care is vaccinated.”

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said in a statement that the “vast majority” of hospitals implemented their own mandatory vaccination policies and the association expects them to continue.

He said health care workers are already required to be vaccinated for a variety of other diseases when they are hired. “At the end of the day, there is no reason to treat the COVID-19 vaccine any differently,” he said.

SickKids, University Health Network, The Ottawa Hospital, Hamilton Health Sciences, Queensway Carleton Hospital, Bluewater Health, Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, London Health Sciences Centre and St. Mary’s General Hospital are among those who say their staff vaccine mandates will remain. Toronto’s University Health Network said its policy is permanent.

Some hospitals say they may review their visitor restrictions, which include mandatory vaccination policies and limiting the number of people who can visit.

The scrapping of the mandatory immunization policies is separate from the vaccination requirements in the province’s long-term care homes, Dr. Moore said, as this policy was imposed by the minister of long-term care.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in an e-mail that Dr. Moore was reviewing the move and would provide recommendations to the government before a decision was made.

As announced earlier this week, Ontario lifted most capacity restrictions for restaurants and other businesses as of Thursday, leaving some limits in place for larger and higher-risk venues until March 1.

Mask requirements for public places will remain in place after March 1, but Dr. Moore said they will be reviewed as early as the second week of March. The requirement to wear masks indoors could be downgraded from mandatory to just recommended, including in schools, he said, if COVID-19 numbers continue to decline. However, Dr. Moore cautioned that mask requirements could return in the fall if Omicron or another variant of the virus resurges.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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