Employers in Ontario's public education and several key health-care settings will need to have COVID-19 vaccination policies in place for staff in the coming weeks, the province announced Tuesday.
As the provincial government navigates a fourth wave of the pandemic, it issued a news release saying the policies are required to help combat spread of the highly infectious delta variant as fall and winter approach.
Ontario will therefore remain in the final step of its "Roadmap to Reopen" plan for now, pressing pause on further lifting remaining restrictions and workplace safety measures — despite surpassing vaccination targets. The province will also offer booster shots to certain vulnerable populations and expand eligibility for vaccination to children turning 12 this year.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, announced the new measures at a news conference in Toronto Tuesday afternoon.
"We are preparing aggressively for the fall. I'm sorry to say I think it's going to be a difficult fall and winter," he told reporters.
Moore has said he expects cases to rise further in the fall when people move indoors, particularly among youth and young adults who are the least-vaccinated demographics and will gather in classrooms in September.
WATCH | Ontario's top doctor announces vaccination policies for education, health-care workers:
Moore alluded to the possibility that further immunization measures that could come later in the year if needed, but didn't state outright what those might look like, saying most of the policies he wants to see implemented are in place and more details will follow in the coming weeks.
"Any orders would be targeted, focused and time-limited," he said. "We want to minimize disruption of our economy going forward and minimize disruption to our schools."
Strict policies for hospitals, health-care facilities
Moore has issued a directive to hospitals and community and home-care service providers to have a strict vaccination and testing policies in place by Sept. 7 for all employees, staff, contractors, students and volunteers. Ambulance services will also need to have policies in place for paramedics.
The directive doesn't make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory, but those who decline the shots will need to undergo regular antigen testing for the virus. It's similar to one already in place in the province's long-term care homes.
Staff at health-care facilities will need to provide proof of full immunization against COVID-19 or a medical reason for not being vaccinated. Those who don't get the shots will need to complete an education session about COVID-19 vaccines and will be routinely tested for the virus before coming to work.
Some Ontario hospitals such as Toronto's University Health Network have already introduced staff vaccination policies along the same lines as the government's plans.
Rules for schools, post-secondary institutions, high-risk settings
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education said it intends to implement a vaccination status disclosure policy for publicly funded school board employees, as well as staff in private schools and licensed child-care settings.
Asked why it took so long for a vaccination policy for education workers, Moore said, "We had a sudden drop off over the last several weeks, and quite honestly, we have to rebolster our efforts to immunize Ontarians."
Moore said the province is making progress but "it's just not quick enough." The delta variant now accounts for 90 per cent of detected cases and that hospitalization rates are rising, he said.
Moore also said he is in discussions with the Ministry of Education to discuss an immunization policy for students that would see parents report their children's vaccination status so public health units can keep track in the event of possible outbreaks.
Those not vaccinated against the illness will be required to undergo frequent rapid antigen testing.
Tests will be required on site or in advance at least once a week and could escalate to two to three times a week, Moore said.
Right now, tests are supplied by the federal government. As for whether individuals might eventually be required to pay for their own rapid tests, Moore said it wasn't likely but he didn't rule out the possibility.
In its news release, the province also noted that vaccination policies will be necessary for the following high-risk settings:
Licensed retirement homes.
Congregate group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities, children's treatment centres and other services for children with special needs, and licensed children's residential settings.
The province also announced it will expand eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine to all youth turning 12 in 2021, citing the examples of Alberta and British Columbia, which made the same move several months ago and identified no associated risks.
Who will be offered 3rd doses?
Additionally, Ontario will also begin offering third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to select vulnerable populations including transplant recipients, those being actively treated for hematological cancers, people who take specific medications called anti-CD20 agents. These groups can receive a third dose at least eight weeks after their second shot.
Third doses will also be offered to long-term care residents, First Nations elder care lodges and "higher-risk" retirement homes. It's unclear what retirement homes fall into this category. These groups can receive a third dose a minimum of five months after their last.
WATCH | Ontario will offer 3rd doses to vulnerable populations:
Premier Doug Ford has previously said he won't make vaccines mandatory in any sector because he considers it a constitutional right not to take the shots. Ford has been fully vaccinated against the virus and regularly encourages Ontario residents to get both doses.
The changes also come as the province enters what prominent experts have declared a fourth wave of the pandemic driven by the more infectious delta variant, despite high overall vaccination coverage in the eligible population.
The latest data shows the majority of recently reported infections are among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people.
Meanwhile, NDP and Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath released a statement calling Tuesday's announcement "a risky half-measure."
"A test just once per week is not the same as a mandatory vaccine. It means that Ford is not requiring anyone — from long-term care to child care — to get a vaccine," Horwath said.
Earlier this month, Horwath backpedalled on comments she made against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for education workers, following heavy criticism.
In her statement Tuesday, she also criticized Ford for refusing to implement a vaccine certificate program.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who also called Tuesday for mandatory vaccination of all legislators, accused Ford of "pandering to anti-vaxxers."
"A mandatory vaccination disclosure and mandatory testing simply isn't the same thing as mandatory vaccination," he said.
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association also called for mandatory vaccinations for all direct care providers.
Other observers said the new policies indicated some progress.
The Ontario School Board Association called the planned policy for educators a "positive step" toward ensuring schools stay safe and open, while the Ontario Hospital Association said it was "pleased" to see the government lay out basic requirements for vaccination policies.
Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said the policies come too close to the start of the school year to be wholly effective, but they'd eventually help boost vaccination rates.
348 new COVID-19 cases
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 348 new cases of COVID-19 this morning.
The Ministry of Health said that of the 331 cases with a known vaccination status:
203, or about 61 per cent, were individuals who had not received a dose.
79, or nearly 24 per cent, were individuals with two doses.
49, or roughly 15 per cent, were individuals with a single dose.
Ontario: New daily cases of COVID-19
Notably, the province's data on the vaccination status of cases does not include breakdowns by age, or indicate how long after a first or second shot of COVID-19 vaccine a person contracted the virus, or whether they were symptomatic at the time of testing.
The new cases include 85 in Toronto, 45 in Peel Region, 41 in Windsor-Essex, 34 in Hamilton, 32 in York Region and 21 in Halton Region.
As of Monday evening, there were 163 patients with COVID-19 in hospitals — the most in a little more than a month. Of those, 127 were being treated for COVID-related illnesses in intensive care.
Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said that 10 new adult patients were sent to ICUs yesterday and cautioned that a relatively slow but steady rise in overall admissions in the last two weeks is likely connected to the delta variant.
The health ministry also reported the deaths of 10 more people with COVID-19 this morning, but said that six of the deaths "occurred more than two months ago" and were included as part of a data cleanup by Public Health Ontario.
Ontario's official death toll stands at 9,428.
Here are some other key pandemic indicators and figures from the Ministry of Health's daily provincial update:
Seven-day rolling average of daily cases: 473.
Tests completed in the last 24 hours: 17,408.
Provincewide test positivity rate: 2.6 per cent.
Active cases: 3,930.
Vaccinations: 40,626 doses were administered by public health units on Monday. About 73.7 per cent of eligible Ontarians, those aged 12 and older, have now had two shots. That works out to roughly 65.1 per cent of Ontario's total population.