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Ontario long-term care minister defends COVID-19 shot policy despite calls to mandate vaccines

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Ontario’s long-term care minister is defending the province’s decision not to mandate COVID-19 shots for nursing-home workers after some of the largest operators in the sector announced plans for stricter policies.

Rod Phillips said Friday that the province’s rules for long-term care have been a “great success,” despite growing calls for the government to do more.

Those rules see employees declare their vaccination status and require regular testing for unvaccinated people, who must also take a course on the benefits of immunization.

“We’re feeling right now like those provisions, the mandatory testing for non-vaccinated staff, that things are going relatively well, and I think the numbers demonstrate that,” Phillips said, noting that immunization rates among long-term care staff have risen to more than 90 per cent since the rules took effect months ago.

Read more: Ontario long-term care homes association calls for mandatory vaccines for all health-care workers

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His comments came the day after a group of major long-term care chains announced unvaccinated staff would be placed on unpaid leave if they don’t get their shots by Oct. 12.

Chartwell Retirement Residences, Extendicare, Responsive Group Inc., Revera Inc., and Sienna Senior Living said the stronger policy is necessary as the more contagious Delta variant spreads amid a fourth wave of infections.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association and others in the sector have also called for a mandatory provincial policy to boost staff immunization rates.

The association argued the policy should apply to all direct health-care providers so workplaces requiring vaccines don’t lose staff to other jobs.

Read more: Fully vaccinated people won’t need COVID-19 tests to enter Ontario long-term care homes

Phillips said Friday that operators are in the “best position” to strengthen their own policies, adding that the government is aiming to see 100 per cent of staff vaccinated.

He also said, however, that the province will look at unspecified ways to “innovate again” to get rates higher.

“We’re going to keep looking at what we need to do to make sure that we keep our residents safe,” he said.

Long-term care homes were devastated by outbreaks and deaths during the pandemic.

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In Ontario, more than a third of people who have died from COVID-19 were long-term care residents, with 3,793 killed by the disease as of Thursday and thousands more infected.

Infections have dropped since the winter, when immunizations began for long-term care residents and staff, but the province listed five active COVID-19 outbreaks as of Friday.

The province announced this month that workers in hospitals and other high-risk settings would have to follow similar vaccination policies to those in long-term care.

Several hospitals have since announced they will fully mandate the shots this fall and those still unvaccinated by the cutoff date may be out of a job.

The province has said it also plans to introduce a vaccination policy for education workers that would require regular testing for unvaccinated individuals.

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Read more: Many Canadians willing to pay more in taxes to fund changes to long-term care, poll finds

 

The latest policies were brought in to help curb the spread of the Delta variant, which now makes up more than 97 per cent of cases in Ontario, according to the province’s COVID-19 science advisors.

Despite more than 75 per cent of the eligible population now fully vaccinated against the virus, Ontario has been reporting a steady rise in new daily infections.

The province reported 759 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, with 634 of the infected people either not vaccinated or with unknown vaccination status.

Serious hospital admissions have also creeped higher in recent weeks, with 158 patients in Ontario intensive care units with COVID-related critical illness as of Friday.

Read more: The Canadian long-term care dilemma — where are we headed?

 

Also on Friday, Ontario said its vaccine distribution task force would wrap up its work the following week, with a final meeting to be held on Monday.

The task force was established last November to develop and oversee the province’s COVID-19 immunization program. The government said Friday that local public health units along with the ministries of health and the solicitor general would continue to run Ontario’s vaccination program.

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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the task force is ending with work left to do, repeating calls for mandatory shots for health and education workers.

“It’s extremely concerning that (Premier) Doug Ford seems to think his job is done and is just crossing his fingers and hoping for the best as we face a fourth wave,” she said in a statement.

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