National and provincial medical groups are decrying an increase in "bullying, attacks and violence" directed at health-care workers, as hospitals are targeted by large groups of anti-vaccine protesters and those opposed to mandatory vaccination.
Several protests have been staged outside hospitals, police headquarters and other busy areas across Ontario this week, following Premier Doug Ford's announcement of the province's COVID-19 vaccine passport plan on Wednesday.
The vaccine certificate system will require residents to show proof they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to dine indoors at restaurants and go to gyms and theatres. It will come into effect on Sept. 22.
It comes as similar protests were staged against COVID-19 vaccinations across British Columbia, with thousands of demonstrators gathered outside hospitals in Vancouver, Kelowna, Kamloops, Victoria, Prince George and Nanaimo. Demonstrations have also been held in other Canadian cities.
The B.C. protests were organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses, a group founded by two Ontario nurses who have promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and attended rallies in the United States for those who think the pandemic is a "fraud."
In Ontario on Wednesday, the day vaccine passports were announced, large anti-mandatory vaccine protests were staged near the legislature in downtown Toronto and outside the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) in London, Ont.
On Thursday, hundreds of anti-vaccine protesters marched in the streets of downtown Toronto, blocking traffic and assembling outside police headquarters to protest against a coming vaccine mandate for the police force.
In some instances at these protests, demonstrators blocked access to hospitals, according to statements from leading medical groups.
Medical groups issue statement
In a strongly worded joint press release from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and Ontario Medical Association (OMA) released on Friday, CMA president Dr. Katharine Smart and OMA president Dr. Adam Kassam said the escalation in anti-vaccine messaging in recent weeks was "precluding access to much-needed health-care settings and demoralizing health-care workers."
"We have confronted uncertainty, exposed ourselves to risks and worked prolonged hours, weeks and months all in support of our patients and the public we serve. We have not signed up for bullying, attacks and violence, at the hands of those who do not subscribe to science or health advice," the statement said.
"The health-care workers who have worked tirelessly for months on end are being bullied and harassed for doing their jobs. This is wrong and unacceptable — full stop. We are in a health crisis of unprecedented proportions."
WATCH | Canadian Medical Association president condemns protests:
The statement concluded by saying that the "stakes could not be higher" as Ontario faces a fourth wave of COVID-19, and "it has never been more important to stand with our health-care colleagues and deplore any and all online or in-person threats."
In a similarly frank statement from the Ontario Hospital Association, president and CEO Anthony Dale said the protests were "truly disheartening."
"They impeded patient access to the hospitals themselves. By denying the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, they also inflicted moral injury on health-care workers who are working tirelessly on the front lines caring for patients sick and dying from this dangerous virus," he said.
While Dale said protesters have "a right to freedom of speech," he said Ontario's health-care workers have continued to go "above and beyond the call of duty" during the pandemic, and hospitals are grateful to them.
"Getting vaccinated is an active choice to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and the exhausted health-care workers who have already fought three waves of COVID-19," he said.
"It is a bitter irony that should any of these anti-vaccine protesters get sick or seriously ill from COVID, it will be hospitals and front-line workers that they turn to for care, perhaps even to save their life."
Dale urged those who were not already fully vaccinated to do so and concluded his statement with a stark warning: "As we face another difficult fall and winter, our collective future will be determined by the sum of our individual choices."
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for LHSC said: "While we respect everyone's right to free speech, we disagree fundamentally with the position and the approach taken in these demonstrations."
In recent weeks, protesters have also been targeting owners of Ontario businesses who are supportive of vaccine passports.
Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg told CBC News late last month that anti-vaccine-passport protesters had been crowding outside her establishments' patios for weeks — banging on pots, yelling at customers and calling her a Nazi because she had voiced her support for vaccine passports.
As a result, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she planned to introduce a bill that would create safety zones around restaurants to keep anti-vaccine protesters further away from staff and customers.