Ontario halts reopening as province warns of ‘difficult fall and winter’ ahead

TORONTO — Ontario is putting the brakes on any further reopening ahead of a “difficult fall and winter” as the province reveals new vaccine policies for high-risk settings.

Employees, staff, contractors, students, and volunteers at hospitals and home and community care settings will, at a minimum, have to provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, have a medical reason for not being vaccinated, or complete a vaccination educational session. 

The new vaccination policies must be implemented in high-risk settings no later than Sept. 7, the government says. 

People in these settings who do not provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 will be required to undertake regular testing, the government says.

The Doug Ford government made the announcement on Tuesday, saying the decision was made “in response to evolving data around the transmissibility of the Delta variant.”

The policy will be similar to one that is already in place in the province’s long-term care homes.

In addition, the Ministry of Education said it plans to introduce a vaccination disclosure policy for all publicly-fund school board employees, and staff in private schools. 

This will also apply to staff in licenced child-care settings.

Rapid COVID-19 testing will be required for staff who are not fully immunized, the government says. 

Vaccination policies will also be implemented in other higher-risk settings, including:

  • Post-secondary institutions
  • Licenced retirement homes
  • Women’s shelters
  • Congregate group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities, children’s treatment centres and other services for children with special needs, and licensed children’s residential settings 

The policies stop short of mandating vaccines for workers in frontline, high-risk jobs — something health worker groups and other advocates had been calling for.

“We must take assertive action to protect the health of all Ontarians,” Chief Medical of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Tuesday. “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.”

“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.” 

Ontario also announced Tuesday it will expand the eligibility of the Pfizer vaccine to children born in 2009 beginning on Aug. 18, meaning many 11-year-olds will be able to get the shot.

“Ontario has closely monitored data from Alberta and British Columbia in making this decision, and these provinces have offered the Pfizer vaccine to youth born in 2009 for several months with no risks identified,” the government said. 

“All children turning 12 years old before the end of 2021 will be eligible to receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and can book their appointment through the provincial booking system, through their public health unit, or pharmacies, or can walk-in to vaccination clinics across the province.”

Premier Doug Ford has said he won’t make vaccines mandatory in any sector because he considers it a constitutional right not to take the shots.

ONTARIO PAUSES FURTHER REOPENING

The Ford government also announced on Tuesday that despite coming close to hitting the targets to exit Step 3, it will halt any further reopening indefinitely due to the risk of the Delta variant.

The government said Moore, along with other health experts, will continue to monitor the situation. 

Ontario’s seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases continues to creep up, hitting 472 on Tuesday. 

“We are preparing aggressively for the fall,” Moore said. “I am sorry to say, I think it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter.”

Just last week, Moore said Ontario was only “seven to 10 days” away from reaching the milestones that would allow the province to exit from Step 3 and essentially eliminate all remaining public health restrictions. 

Meanwhile, Ontario will also begin offering a third COVID-19 vaccine to those who are at highest risk of illness. 

The government says this will help add an “extra layer of protection against the Delta variant.”

For a full list of who is eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, click here.

VACCINE POLICY CRITICISED BY OPPOSITION, EDUCATION UNION

All three other political parties in Ontario have spoken out in favour of mandatory vaccinations for health-care and education workers. On Tuesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters that the policy introduced by the Ford government was not enough.

“It seems to me that this is a kind of half-baked initiative that we heard from the chief medical officer of health today and it’s troubling,” she said.

“I have some sympathy for the guy, I mean we have a government and a premier who want to do the bare minimum. They want to do zero or the bare minimum and it’s got to be tough for him to try to convince them to step up and do the right thing but I can tell you that what was announced today was not what people expected and it’s not the right path. We have to be decisive here, we have to take the most strong measures that we can possibly take.”

Meanwhile, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called the policy a “half measure” that is bound to put people at risk.

“We need mandatory vaccines for both health-care and education workers to protect patients and students. What was announced today is a cop out,” he said in a statement. “Doug Ford refuses to take the necessary steps to battle the virus. And once again, he refuses to step up to the mic and answer the tough questions.”

“I fear half measures could result in further lockdowns, closed schools, and overwhelmed hospitals.”

Earlier in the day, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called for mandatory vaccinations of all members of provincial parliament and clear protocols for those who choose to remain unvaccinated, as politicians prepare to return to the legislature on Sept. 13 for the fall session.

In an email to CP24 Tuesday evening, Ford spokesperson Ivana Yelich said that all PC Caucus members and candidates will be required to be vaccinated by Thursday.

“Due to the nature of their work which involves daily interaction with members of the public, including the most vulnerable, it is our expectation that every single PC Caucus member and candidate be vaccinated,” she said.

Meanwhile. the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said Tuesday afternoon that delegates voted at their annual meeting in favour of calling on the Ford government to implement mandatory vaccination of school staff, with a few 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,” ETFO President Sam Hammond said in a statement.

“Considering the increased risks the Delta variant poses to those who are unvaccinated, including children under 12, and with a concerning rise in the number of COVID-19 cases across Ontario, we must do everything we can to ensure the health and safety of all Ontarians; this includes mandating vaccines for all staff working in schools, with exceptions.”

The ETFO said that a survey conducted in June found that more than 90 per cent of members had received at least one dose and 75 per cent had scheduled a second dose before September.

Some health organizations say they support the vaccine policy presented Tuesday.

The Ontario Medical Association posted on social media saying the policy “will help to protect our most vulnerable populations and reduce the spread of #COVID19 in our communities” while the President and CEO at The Hospital for Sick Children said they strongly feel “COVID-19 immunization is an individual & societal responsibility of all SickKids staff.”

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