TORONTO — Staff at Ontario long-term care homes must be vaccinated against COVID-19, the government announced Friday, reversing a previous vaccine-or-test policy it defended as recently as a few weeks ago.
Long-term care associations and opposition parties have been calling for the move, saying it was needed to protect vulnerable residents of the homes.
In announcing the policy change, Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said it had become clear that vaccination rates among staff were not going to be sufficient without a mandate, given the presence of the Delta variant.
Phillips said that while 90 per cent of staff overall have received at least one dose, there were dozens of homes with vaccination rates below 80 per cent.
"You could simply see that we were not going to get to the level of vaccination that we needed to get," he said.
All in-home staff, support workers, students and volunteers must be vaccinated by Nov. 15 unless they have a valid medical exemption.
The allowable exemptions will be a fairly narrow list, Phillips said, such as an allergy to a vaccine ingredient or an adverse reaction to a first dose.
The Ontario Hospital Association, the Ontario Long-Term Care Association and AdvantAge Ontario, which represents not-for-profit and municipal homes, applauded the policy but said it should be applied across the health-care sector.
"This should have happened sooner, but we're happy it's here now and now we need to look at extending it because all congregate care settings for seniors need to have this in place, assisted living, and in fact the whole health-care system," said AdvantAge Ontario CEO Lisa Levin.
"Let’s say someone is working in long-term care and they refuse to get vaccinated, they can now go work in another health-care setting."
The NDP and the Liberals also said the announcement should have come much earlier, and should now be extended to all health-care and education workers.
"Opt-out tests should never have been on the table in the first place for any worker in close contact with vulnerable Ontarians," NDP deputy leader and long-term care critic Sara Singh said in a statement.
Long-term care residents have had about three per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases, but account for 41 per cent of the deaths. There are currently 19 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities.
The government's previous policy was to require regular testing for staff not vaccinated against COVID-19. Phillips said in late August that those rules had been a "great success," but noted Friday that positive cases in unvaccinated staff were causing outbreaks.
"We are not seeing widespread outbreaks here in Ontario, but to the extent we are, when we look at that data, we see that those unvaccinated staff are one of the significant causes," he said.
Any staff not fully vaccinated by the deadline will not be able to enter a long-term care home to work.
Homes that experience staffing challenges due to the policy will be supported, Philips said, including through mobile support teams that helped at 70 different homes through the pandemic. As well, thousands of new personal support workers are set to graduate, he said.
"This will be difficult for those that make a choice not to become vaccinated, but the reality is that our residents, they don’t have a choice about where they are going to live," Phillips said. "This is their home and we have to make sure that they are protected."
Homes will also start randomly testing fully vaccinated staff, caregivers and visitors to detect breakthrough cases early.
Third COVID-19 vaccine doses are being offered to residents of long-term care, and as of this week, 64 per cent had received a third shot.
The province said 86.3 per cent of eligible Ontarians have one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 81 per cent have two doses.
Ontario reported 1,315 cases of COVID-19 over Thursday and Friday, and 12 more deaths.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press