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Internationally educated nurses will be allowed to work in Ontario hospitals, long-term care homes and other health settings grappling with pandemic-related staffing challenges, the province’s health minister announced Tuesday.

Christine Elliott said more than 1,200 applicants had expressed interest in the programs that would see the internationally trained professionals deployed where extra help is needed, under the supervision of another regulated health-care provider.

“Expanding opportunities for internationally educated nurses is just one more way Ontario is bolstering its health care workforce,” Elliott told a news conference, noting that the situation in hospitals remains serious.

The province will run the programs with Ontario Health, which oversees the health system, and the College of Nurses of Ontario.

Participants would have the opportunity to become permanent staff, the head of Ontario Health said at the news conference.

CEO Matthew Anderson said an estimated 300 nurses would likely be able to start working as early as this week at some of the 50 hospitals identified as in need of workforce support.

He said scaling up quickly to meet need amid high numbers of absences in hospitals will be challenging, but he noted that “every nurse matters” given the current situation, which has seen the Omicron wave drive up virus-related hospitalizations at record numbers.

“Every person that we can get to that front line of care makes a difference,” he said. “We’re very keen to get this underway.”

Ontario reported 477 COVID-19 patients in intensive care as of Tuesday and a record-breaking daily intensive care admission figure of 80 people from the previous day. There were 3,220 hospitalized virus patients as some hospitals limited services, and a system-wide pause on scheduled surgeries continued in order to free up resources.

Elliott noted Tuesday that patients appear to require slightly shorter hospital and intensive care stays when infected with the Omicron variant compared with the Delta variant, which was dominant in Ontario in the months before Omicron’s rapid takeover starting last month.

She said current trends indicate that the Omicron wave will peak around the third or fourth week of January, and in the first week of February for intensive care units – though the exact number of people infected every day isn’t known due to policy changes limiting tests to those deemed most at-risk.

Amid the ongoing Omicron wave, Anderson also remarked Tuesday on a protocol developed with the province’s top doctor to deal with staff absences, including the possibility of having workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 come back to work as other provinces have done.

He said those people would be restricted to certain areas where they can work “in case this kind of situation does arise.”

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