TORONTO — Ontario has pushed back the deadline for long-term care workers to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but approximately 95 per cent of staff have already taken both shots, the province said Friday.
Monday was the original deadline set for workers in the sector that's been hard-hit by the virus to show proof of full vaccination or be barred from entering the homes.
But a spokeswoman for the long-term care minister said workers now have until Dec. 13 to be fully vaccinated.
Vanessa De Matteis said the extension was offered to accommodate a change in the recommended interval between doses from the federal immunization committee.
Monday is now the deadline for workers to have their first shot. The province said 98 per cent of staff had met that requirement as of Friday. Staff also have the option of showing a medical exemption.
The worker vaccination data shared Friday morning was incomplete, De Matteis noted, because 57 homes had yet to submit updated data due to technical issues.
More data had been added on Friday afternoon, a ministry spokesman said, with nine homes left outstanding. The province did not immediately respond to clarify if that changed the percentage of vaccinated workers.
The mandatory immunization policy was announced last month along with other measures including random testing of vaccinated staff and visitors to help detect possible breakthrough cases more quickly.
Associate Deputy Long-Term Care Minister Erin Hannah informed licensees of the change in vaccination deadlines in a Nov. 4 memo.
She said people are being given more time to get their shots because the National Advisory Committee on Immunization issued guidance in October saying the "optimal" interval between first and second doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is eight weeks.
The Moderna shots are currently authorized to be taken four weeks apart and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are authorized for a three-week dose interval.
In issuing its guidance, NACI noted that risk, local transmission and the need for faster second dose protection should be considered when choosing a longer dose interval.
Hannah wrote to licensees that people may choose to ask for a longer interval between shots and the ministry directive is changing to allow for that.
She said homes that implemented mandatory vaccination policies before the ministry will need to decide on their own policy adjustments.
Sara Singh, deputy leader for the Opposition New Democrats, said Friday that the decision to extend the vaccination date is "concerning," but shows that challenges with vaccine mandates can be overcome.
The Progressive Conservative government has resisted mandating vaccinations for hospital workers over concerns about patient care if too many staff lose their jobs.
"Residents in long-term care deserve to be protected," Singh said in a statement. "(Premier) Doug Ford should stop making excuses and guarantee the same level of protection for hospital patients and students by mandating vaccination for all health-care and education workers.”
Hannah's Nov. 4 memo also shared some guidance about developing vaccination policies for visitors to long-term care homes.
She said such policies should consider legal obligations to patients' rights and the obligation to keep homes safe, and advised consulting with legal counsel, residents, families and the local public health unit while developing visitor vaccination policies.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press