Ontario will become the first province to offer third doses of COVID-19 vaccines to immunocompromised people as it deals with a rise in cases despite high levels of vaccination.
The province is also pausing its reopening plan and will require employers in schools and high-risk health care settings to have vaccination policies in place in the coming weeks. Vaccine eligibility will be extended to all children turning 12 this year.
Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced the measures on Tuesday, as part of a wide-ranging effort to curb the spread of the Delta variant and stem the brunt of the fourth wave.
“I am sorry to say I think it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter and hence the reason we’re putting these policies in place,” he said.
More than 80 per cent of eligible Ontarians have had one dose of the vaccine, and the province is on pace to reach 75-per-cent full immunization by next week, exceeding the benchmarks set out by the province for wrapping up the final stage of its reopening plan. But evolving data around the transmissibility of the Delta variant have led the government to maintain capacity limits on businesses and gatherings.
Hospitals, as well as home-care and community-care services, must require employees, staff, contractors, students and volunteers to have proof of vaccination no later than Sept 7. Anybody in those settings who remains unimmunized will have to show a medical exemption or undergo education sessions and free antigen testing at least once a week.
Ottawa announced last week that it will require vaccinations for federal employees and those working in some federally regulated industries such as airlines and railways. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that there would be consequences for people without medical exemptions who choose to remain unvaccinated, but he did not specify what they would be.
Dr. Moore encouraged Ontario’s hospitals and community-care settings to independently tighten restrictions beyond the provincial guidelines if they see case numbers rise in their workplaces.
“Ours is the bare minimum that I would expect a partner to implement in their setting.”
The Ontario Hospital Association supports the new measures, for which it has advocated since July, president and chief executive officer Anthony Dale said in a statement. Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, also welcomed the vaccination policy, but said her organization plans to test twice as much as the provincial government recommends, as testing once a week is not enough to control the spread.
“It was not fair for patients to not know if their health care provider was vaccinated,” she said. “They did not need that to add to their stress level.”
Ontario will now offer third doses of the vaccine to transplant recipients, blood cancer patients, people getting treatment for blood disorders, and recipients of anti-CD20 agent, an immunosuppressant. They can receive their third dose at a minimum of eight weeks after their second dose.
Residents of high-risk congregate settings including long-term care homes, higher-risk retirement homes and First Nations elder-care lodges will also be allowed a third shot; but if they do not have an immunosuppressive disorder, they will have to wait a minimum of five months after their second dose to receive it.
People who qualify will be contacted by their health care providers once they become eligible.
Children born in 2009, meanwhile, will qualify for the Pfizer vaccine as of Wednesday, in an attempt to get them vaccinated with at least one dose before the start of the school year. Those born later than 2009 are still not eligible to be vaccinated.
There are few details on how the province’s school boards will keep track of staff who are not vaccinated and will therefore need to be regularly tested for COVID-19. The government is expected to introduce a vaccination disclosure policy for publicly funded school-board employees, as well as staff in private schools and licensed child-care settings.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario on Tuesday called for mandatory vaccination of school staff, with provisions for exceptions.
“The province’s voluntary disclosure policy does not go far enough to protect students and school staff. Given the severity and longevity of the global pandemic, it is not unreasonable for the Ford government to implement a mandatory vaccination policy in schools,” said Sam Hammond, the union’s president.
Andréa Grebenc, chair of the Halton District School Board, west of Toronto, said that while the policy is appreciated, it “should have come earlier” because parents and educators have been calling for it for as some time. There’s about three weeks before most students in the province return to school.
She said school boards are unclear about how the policy would work, and whether the disclosure form would mean the schools can’t share the vaccination status information with parents.
“We have parents who want to know,” if teachers are vaccinated, she said.
NDP and Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath urged Premier Doug Ford to do more to protect children not eligible for vaccines.
“What we’re seeing from Doug Ford are half-measures,” she said. “There is still no vaccine certificate plan being put in place by this government, and that is absolutely wrong.”
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he feared the measures to curb the spread of the Delta variant were too lenient and could result in further lockdowns, closed schools and overwhelmed hospitals.
“We need mandatory vaccines for both health care and education workers to protect patients and students,” he said in a statement. “What was announced today is a cop out.”
Many businesses, meanwhile, are concerned about the delay in the province’s reopening plan. Gyms, movie theatres, wedding venues, dance studios and other recreation businesses will now have to wait longer before resuming full-capacity operations.
The continuing restrictions are “crushing” for these establishments, said Ryan Mallough, senior director of provincial affairs, Ontario, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. He said many business owners will be frustrated at the government for moving its goal posts, and hopes that they will receive enough financial support to stay afloat.
Ontario has used small-business restrictions more than any province in Canada, he said. “We’re looking at the government for a stay-open plan – how do we keep businesses open as much as we can?”
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