Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that Ontario won't make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for those working in health care, suggesting doing so could jeopardize patient care in the province.
"The impact of the potential departure of tens of thousands of health care workers is weighed against the small number of outbreaks that are currently active in Ontario's hospitals," Ford said in a news release.
"Having looked at the evidence, our government has decided to maintain its flexible approach by leaving human resourcing decisions up to individual hospitals."
Ford said hospitals have strong enough outbreak controls at place that even when COVID-19 spreads at their facilities there is "little if any impact on patient care."
Currently, hospital workers in Ontario must get vaccinated or regularly get tested for the virus, though many hospitals have gone ahead with stricter policies. Hospitals that have placed unvaccinated employees on leave or terminated them have reported staff losses of between one and three per cent.
Several hospitals, including those with Toronto's University Health Network, have already put mandatory vaccination policies in place.
Ford pointed to already high vaccination rates in hospitals as another factor behind his decision. He said vaccines and strong infection-control protocols have kept hospitals safe.
His statement also pointed to news of surgery cancellations and diagnostic tests in B.C. due to staff shortages after its vaccine mandate took effect. More than 3,300 health-care workers are now on unpaid leave in B.C.
Ford said the government will keep monitoring the situation and might revisit the policy "if warranted."
'Thousands of surgeries' waiting, Elliott says
Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters later on Tuesday that the province decided not to impose a vaccine mandate on health-care workers because hospitals would experience "significant" job losses, but the province supports the right of hospitals to make individual decisions.
Elliott said the province was concerned that "we would lose some of our precious health human resources" and it did a risk assessment.
"As government, we have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of all Ontarians and so that's why this decision is the right decision for Ontario right now."
WATCH | Health Minister Christine Elliott speaks to reporters about province's decision:
If the mandatory vaccine policy was imposed and unvaccinated health care workers lost their jobs, the province would have to cancel surgeries and it doesn't want to do that, she said.
"We've got thousands of surgeries that are waiting, not to mention diagnostic procedures, and we know that we're seeing patients that are more acutely ill," she said.
"We want to be able to keep those going so that we'll be able to treat people in an earlier stage of illness so that they can become well."
Elliott did not provide a more specific figure of possible job losses, other than to say the impact of a vaccine mandate "could be very significant."
She said some individual hospitals indicated they were against the policy because of potential human resources losses, but she refused to name the hospitals or provide a figure of how many were against it.
Opposition politicians called on the government to share documents and data backing up its claims.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she's skeptical of Ford's figure describing the scale of the potential worker shortage.
"If the government's making decisions based on facts then they should be showing people what it is that they're making their decisions on," Horwath said.
"The minister has just indicated she's not prepared to do that," Horwath said. "The experts made it clear that no unvaccinated person should be working in health-care settings with the most vulnerable folks amongst us."
In a statement, Horwath added: "Unvaccinated staff should not be allowed in the ICU, in pediatric wards with sick babies, in the homes of vulnerable home-care patients, or anywhere at all in health care, or in our children's schools. Doug Ford is catering to anti-vaxxers at the risk of our vulnerable loved ones.
"The Science Table was clear. The risk of COVID-19 outbreaks causing staff shortages is far worse than the planned shortages caused by removing the few remaining unvaccinated workers."
Liberal House Leader John Fraser accused the government of "fear-mongering" by not being transparent about its decision making.
Nurses' association calls decision 'a disgrace'
Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, called the decision "a disgrace to patients and to the great majority of health-care workers who desperately are supporting mandatory vaccination." She said she was deeply disappointed by the announcement.
"This decision by Premier Ford is a disgrace and shows a lack of courage to do what's right for Ontario's patients and workers. To not implement a province-wide vaccination policy for all health-care workers puts the burden unfairly on employers and imposes a risk of infection on Ontarians receiving health services," Grinspun said in a statement.
"The majority of hospital CEOs have already weighed in and provided their support for mandatory vaccination for health-care workers. To not act immediately and go against the evidence is irresponsible."
The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) had written to Ford in support of a province-wide mandate — a position it said was endorsed by 120 of 141 member hospitals.
In its letter, the association had referenced spiking vaccination rates at hospitals with mandatory policies and said staff shortages from outbreaks are more difficult to manage than those from mandatory vaccination.
"There's a strong consensus among Ontario's hospitals for a provincial policy requiring health-care workers to be fully vaccinated," the OHA said in a statement on Wednesday.
"Given the sacrifices that have been made throughout the pandemic by businesses and wider society to protect the finite resources of the health-care system, health-care workers have a moral imperative to take every
precaution possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the OHA said.
"The overwhelming number of health-care workers who are fully vaccinated also deserve to feel safe and to deliver patient care in an environment that requires the highest level of protection available against COVID-19."
The organization said it was disappointed in the government's decision and would welcome "continued dialogue" about the issue. It said now is the time for a "consistent provincial policy" that would cover all hospitals.
The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, an expert group that advises the government on the pandemic, had also written to Ford that hospital workers who aren't vaccinated may be out of work for long periods of time if infected with COVID-19, and said a vaccine mandate would make hospitals safer for vulnerable patients.
The Ontario Nurses' Association wrote to Ford saying the current policy allowing unvaccinated workers to be tested is reasonable and cited concerns about worker shortages.
Policy is 'safest thing for patients,' ICU doctor says
In a pinned tweet, Dr. Michael Warner, an ICU doctor at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said it doesn't make sense to allow unvaccinated workers to interact with patients.
"We need a universal, mandatory vaccination policy for all hospitals and long-term care homes in Ontario," he said.
"That's the safest thing for patients."
Ford's announcement came hours after the province's top doctor unveiled a plan to provide vaccine booster shots to all Ontarians over the age of 12 by early next year. Reporters asked Dr. Kieran Moore about a vaccine mandate for health- care workers but he did not provide an answer.