Ontario will pause further reopening, start offering third COVID-19 shots to vulnerable populations, and require many health and education workers to get vaccinated against the virus or take regular tests, the government announced Tuesday.
But the province stopped short of mandating vaccines for workers in high-risk settings, drawing criticism that its new policies won’t do enough to fight a rising fourth wave driven by the extremely contagious Delta variant.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said the latest measures were an attempt to protect the most vulnerable amid a drop in vaccine demand, the uptick in cases, and the expectation of a “difficult fall.”
“We must take assertive action to protect the health of all Ontarians,” said Moore, who has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated.
“The policies I am announcing today are an important link in the chain of protection that will help keep Ontario strong in the face of the fourth wave.”
Moore said reopening needs to be paused to allow time for the new policies to take effect, adding that Ontario’s vaccination rates need to be higher. Eighty one per cent residents aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 73 per cent have both shots.
While the majority of Ontario’s recent cases have been in unvaccinated people, Moore emphasized that COVID-19 is spreading notably once more in high-risk settings like long-term care homes and hospitals, where people are especially vulnerable.
“I know what has been outlined for you today is a lot to process, but this is what we need to do to protect Ontarians,” he said.
The province will stay in Step 3 of its reopening plan for now, maintaining capacity limits on businesses, gatherings and other settings. The government previously said the vast majority of public health measures would be lifted once certain vaccine targets were met.
Transplant recipients, patients with certain cancers, and long-term care and retirement home residents will be offered third COVID-19 vaccine doses starting as early as this week.
Meanwhile, employers in health and education will need to have policies that ask staff to disclose their vaccination status, with proof of full vaccination or a documented medical exemption. Those who aren’t vaccinated will need to take an education session and be subject to regular tests.
Moore said that directive takes effect on Sept. 7, covering hospitals, ambulance services and community and home-care service providers. It will be similar to one already in place in long-term care homes, and mirrors staff policies introduced by some hospitals.
The top doctor said the directive outlines the “minimal standard” expected and employers can introduce stricter policies if they choose.
The Education Ministry is finalizing a similar vaccination policy for employees at all publicly funded school boards and licensed child care settings, Moore said. Staff who don’t get vaccinated will have to regularly take rapid COVID-19 tests.
Moore added that it would be “prudent” to require children aged 12 and older report their COVID-19 vaccination status when attending school.
There are also plans for vaccination policies in other high-risk settings like post-secondary institutions, retirement homes, congregate group homes, children’s treatment centres, women’s shelters and institutional foster homes, Moore said.
Premier Doug Ford has said he is opposed to mandatory vaccination policies because he believes people have a constitutional right not to take the vaccine, though he has personally been fully vaccinated.
Opposition politicians criticized the government as taking “half-measures” rather than fully mandating vaccinations for high-risk frontline jobs.
“No unvaccinated person should be providing health care to our most vulnerable, no unvaccinated person should be in a classroom with our kids,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “It’s completely unbelievable that the premier and the government don’t see this as a priority.”
Horwath, who previously advocated for a similar vaccine-or-get-tested policy before reversing her position, said there should be “zero tolerance” for dishonesty about vaccination status or COVID-19 symptoms at work.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who also called Tuesday for mandatory vaccination of all legislators, accused Ford of “pandering to anti-vaxxers.”
“A mandatory vaccination disclosure and mandatory testing simply isn’t the same thing as mandatory vaccination,” he said.
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association also called for mandatory vaccinations for all direct care providers.
Other observers said the new policies indicated some progress.
The Ontario School Board Association called the planned policy for educators a “positive step” towards ensuring schools stay safe and open, while the Ontario Hospital Association said it was “pleased” to see the government lay out basic requirements for vaccination policies.
Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said the policies come too close to the start of the school year to be wholly effective, but they’d eventually help boost vaccination rates.
The province also announced it will expand eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children born in 2009, who will turn 12 this year. Children born later than 2009 aren’t eligible to receive any COVID-19 vaccines in Canada.