Skip to main content

Ontario is seeking to recruit more nurses in underserved communities, permanently boost the pay of personal support workers, and maintain a stockpile of personal protective equipment.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government released a Plan to Stay Open on Tuesday that includes money to attract nurses to underserved areas, a move to make temporary pay increases for personal support workers permanent and legislation that would require the province to maintain a stockpile of masks and other equipment.

But the plan is being released as the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has started to rise again, with the traces of the virus found in wastewater also increasing.

The number of people in Ontario’s hospitals with COVID-19 hit 790 on Tuesday, up from 639 a week earlier and the highest level since March 5. The government has said it expected numbers to increase after it removed capacity limits and vaccine passport rules for restaurants this month but said the health system could manage. Just a week ago, masks became optional in schools and most public places.

Ford says Ontario prepared to handle an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Quebec commits to reforming its pandemic-battered health care system by 2025

Ontario Treasury Board president Prabmeet Sarkaria told reporters that Tuesday’s plan was about preparing for future emergencies and shoring up the health system, not reimposing public-health restrictions.

“As we look at public-health measures, we’re very confident. We’ve got some of the highest vaccination rates in all of Canada, we’ve got a wall of immunity with over four million people in Ontario that have had COVID-19 and recovered. We have access to antiviral drugs,” Mr. Sarkaria said.

To help deal with hospital staff shortages, Tuesday’s plan includes $142-million to add onto existing programs that cover tuition for nursing students who agree to work for two years in Northern or underserved communities. Another similar new program will expand to professions beyond nursing, starting in 2023. The plan also confirms the government’s previously announced move to offer nurses a $5,000 retention bonus.

The plan also includes new legislation, introduced Tuesday, to make the extra pandemic pay offered to personal support workers permanent, which Mr. Ford has repeatedly promised. The bill would also allow the government to offer similar pay bumps in future crises. Another provision would make it easier for foreign-trained medical staff to practise here by banning their professional colleges from requiring Canadian work experience.

But critics say these moves do too little to counter the effects of the province’s Bill 124, a prepandemic piece of legislation that caps public-sector wage and benefit increases at 1 per cent a year.

“That is the real killer of retention for nurses,” said Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

The government also says it will make the 3,100 temporary hospital beds it created for COVID-19 surges permanent, a move Anthony Dale, CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, called “the largest one-time increase in Ontario hospital capacity since the late 1990s.”

However, he said the system still needs to grow further, pointing to the aging population and the same number of Ontario hospital beds going into the pandemic as 20 years before.

The proposed legislation introduced Tuesday would also require the province to maintain a stockpile of masks and other critical equipment. Early in the pandemic, it emerged the province had allowed stockpiles of masks and other personal protective equipment to expire, leaving Ontario at the mercy of foreign suppliers. The plan would also threaten large fines for anyone who resells government-issued masks or other PPE. The bill would also require the government to draft an emergency preparedness plan, make it publicly available and review it every five year.

Peter Juni, scientific director of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said the increases in Ontario’s hospital admissions are running slightly ahead of the latest projections, which he believed was because of Ontarians increasing their normal activities more than anticipated as restrictions lifted.

The increase is not as steep as it was in December, but Dr. Juni said growth in traces of the virus in wastewater samples was now doubling every 10 days, suggesting an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 new cases each day.

Given the amount of immunity in the population, through vaccines and infections, Dr. Juni said he did not anticipate a repeat of the last wave’s flood in hospitals, which were jammed with 4,000 patients at the peak. But he advises people to get their booster shots and to be cautious for the next few weeks.

“I would hope that people would understand that this is not over,” Dr. Juni said. “If you have plans to meet with other people in large groups etc., why not postpone that until spring really arrives? And if you go indoors and it’s crowded, why not wear a mask?”

NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath questioned the timing of the province’s plan, which comes with the spring election campaign on the horizon in advance of a June 2 vote.

“This is a last-ditch attempt to try to convince Ontarians that they have a plan, but I don’t see a plan,” Ms. Horwath said.

Ontario Liberal MPP John Fraser panned the government’s plan for not including efforts to ramp up second-dose vaccinations among children. According to data from the province, 55 per cent cent of children between 5 and 11 have at least one dose and only 33 per cent are fully vaccinated.

“The single most important thing for reopening isn’t there,” Mr. Fraser said. “What we need right now is to encourage people to get vaccinated and there’s nothing there.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.