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Ontario reviewing COVID vaccine mandate for long-term care workers, minister says

Registered nurse Clair Judd, left, vaccinates LTC nurse Yinghua Fang with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A policy requiring that Ontario long-term care workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 is under review, the minister responsible for the sector said on Thursday.

Paul Calandra said the rule — which currently says workers must have two vaccine shots and get a third by mid-March — is being looked at as the government reviews all of its sector-specific vaccination policies and other pandemic measures.

“We’re taking a look at everything right now,” Calandra said at the legislature.

Read more: Vaccine policies ‘no longer necessary,’ Ontario top doc wants to remove them March 1

“The government is in the process (of) reviewing everything: mandates, both long-term care home and other restrictions across government, so that’s going to be part of that.”

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s top doctor, had recently said that he’d like to see the province’s COVID-19 vaccination policies for workplaces end by March 1, when Ontario’s vaccine certificate system for many indoor public spaces is set to end. On Thursday, he said those policies will end a little later than that date.

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Long-term care is the only sector in the province with a mandate that workers be vaccinated, and Moore isn’t responsible for revoking it. But he indicated he was open to discussing with Calandra the possibility of ending the policy, given the high levels of vaccination in the homes.

“I have to celebrate how well we’ve done in the long-term care sector,” Moore said at a news conference on Thursday.

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“At this point, I’m absolutely supportive of working with the minister to reflect on their current rate of vaccination and the risk in the community and review whether that mandate of a third dose in workers should be maintained.”

Calandra didn’t say if he was considering any specific date to end the long-term care staff mandate. He said the sector is “moving in a good direction” with vaccinations and said keeping residents safe is a priority, along with eventually lifting restrictions on visits.

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“Ultimately, any decision that we make on that is going to be based on keeping residents safe and allowing greater access,” he said.

The province announced the third-dose requirement in late December, after the Omicron variant hit, along with other measures aimed at fighting COVID-19 spread in long-term care homes, which saw thousands of deaths and infections in earlier pandemic waves.

An initial January deadline for third doses was pushed back to March 14 as homes battled widespread virus outbreaks, staff shortages and difficulty booking booster appointments.

Moore’s briefing last week in which he expressed a desire to quickly end workplace vaccination policies appeared to spark confusion within the long-term care sector.

The CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, which represents municipal and non-profit homes, sent a memo to members on Feb. 18 describing a meeting she had with long-term care ministry officials following Moore’s remarks, in which she was told his comments about ending vaccine policies “were meant to be more general.”

Lisa Levin said she stressed “the urgent need for clarity around vaccine mandates in LTC with March 14 rapidly approaching.”

“I realize these conflicting directions and the general opening up of the province are making the situation for (long-term care) home management very challenging in a number of respects, including trying to get staff to get their third booster shots,” she wrote.

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Levin told The Canadian Press in an emailed statement on Thursday that the internal memo was meant to clarify questions about Moore’s comments and to confirm they weren’t intended for the long-term care sector.

“Given the real-time nature of policy making we are appreciative of the province working closely with our sector,” she said.

The CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents 70 per cent of the province’s homes, said the organization “supports the constant review of COVID-19 precautions in long-term care by the Ontario government to ensure they’re current and in line with emerging public health data.”

Donna Duncan said in an emailed statement that the “vast majority” of staff had received the vaccine doses they are eligible for and said members were still aiming to run more on-site vaccination clinics.

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Provincial data as of Thursday said 4,457 people out of the total 12,347 Ontarians who have died from COVID-19 were long-term care residents — more than 36 per cent of the province’s virus death toll.

Despite steep numbers of outbreaks and infections, the sector has reported far fewer deaths during the Omicron wave than during other infection surges, with recent provincial data reflecting the strong protection a majority of residents have from third and fourth vaccine doses.

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