TORONTO — Ontario will pause all further reopening, start offering third COVID-19 shots to vulnerable populations, and require many health and education workers to get vaccinated against the virus or take regular tests.
The province's top doctor announced the new measures Tuesday as part of a response to the highly contagious Delta variant that has been driving a recent rise in infections.
Dr. Kieran Moore – who for months has urged residents to get vaccinated – said more must be done to protect the most vulnerable amid a drop in vaccine demand, the uptick in cases, and the expectation of a "difficult fall."
"We must take assertive action to protect the health of all Ontarians," he said. "The policies I am announcing today are an important link in the chain of protection that will help keep Ontario strong in the face of the fourth wave."
Moore said reopening needs to be paused to allow time for the new policies to take effect, adding that Ontario's vaccination rates need to be higher. Eighty one per cent residents aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 73 per cent have both shots.
He emphasized that COVID-19 is spreading notably once more in high-risk settings like long-term care homes and hospitals, where people are especially vulnerable to illness.
"I know what has been outlined for you today is a lot to process, but this is what we need to do to protect Ontarians," Moore said.
The province will remain in Step 3 of its reopening plan, maintaining capacity limits on businesses, gatherings and other settings.
Transplant recipients, patients with certain cancers, and long-term care and retirement home residents will be offered third COVID-19 vaccine doses starting as early as this week.
Meanwhile, employers in health and education will need to have policies that ask staff to disclose their vaccination status and require those who are unvaccinated to take an education session and be subject to regular tests.
Moore said that directive takes effect on Sept. 7, covering hospitals, ambulance services and community and home-care service providers.
It will be similar to one already in place in long-term care homes, and mirrors staff vaccination policies already introduced by some Ontario hospitals.
The Education Ministry is finalizing a similar COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees at all publicly funded school boards and licensed child care settings, Moore said. Staff who don’t get vaccinated will have to regularly take rapid COVID-19 tests.
There are also plans for vaccination policies in other high-risk settings like post-secondary institutions, retirement homes, congregate group homes, children’s treatment centres, women’s shelters and institutional foster homes, Moore said.
All the latest policies stop short of mandating vaccines for workers in frontline, high-risk jobs – something health worker groups and other advocates had been calling for.
Premier Doug Ford has said he is opposed to mandatory vaccination policies because he believes people have a constitutional right not to take the vaccine.
The province is also expanding eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children born in 2009, who will turn 12 this year. Children born later than 2009 currently aren't eligible to receive any COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada.
Moore said Tuesday that it would be "prudent" to require eligible schoolchildren aged 12 and older to report their COVID-19 vaccination status, saying he's in "active discussion" with the Education Ministry about an immunization policy for students.
He has repeatedly said he expects cases to rise in fall as people move indoors, and noted Tuesday that the latest policy changes are necessary to protect at-risk individuals and unvaccinated children.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press