TORONTO — Metrolinx plans to require its staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the Ontario transit agency said Friday as Toronto's top public health doctor advised all employers in the city to develop immunization policies.
The news follows a slate of announcements over the last week requiring stricter vaccination polices for several sectors in the province, including health, education and public service jobs.
Final details of Metrolinx's policy, including consequences for unvaccinated workers and accommodations for those with medical exemptions, were still in the works at the time of the announcement.
But a spokeswoman for the provincial agency indicated the policy would go further than provincial guidelines outlined this week for workers in hospitals, schools and other high-risk jobs, which will allow workers who don't take the shots to regularly undergo testing as an alternative.
"We don't expect it to include rapid testing," Anne Marie Aikins, head of public relations for the organization, said on Friday. "We're expecting it to be a mandatory vaccination policy."
She said Metrolinx already has rapid testing at some high-risk locations and employees have expressed interest in stronger protective measures.
Time of implementation is also being finalized, but Aikins said Metrolinx hopes to have the policy in effect soon given the risk of the highly contagious Delta variant that's become dominant in the province.
"We will really want to get it right," she said. "This is an exceptionally important time."
The Ministry of Transportation said in a statement that other transit and transportation agencies, including the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and the Owen Sound Transportation Company, have also been directed to develop vaccination policies.
Also on Friday, the medical officer of health for the province's largest city issued a statement "strongly recommending" the local employers implement COVID-19 vaccination policies.
"Supporting your employees to get vaccinated is the best way to help protect them from the risks of COVID-19, prevent outbreaks in workplace settings and build confidence for a safer return to work as we continue living with this virus in our community," Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a statement.
De Villa's comments came a day after the City of Toronto announced staff were expected to have received both COVID-19 shots by Oct. 30.
"The City will comply with its human rights obligations and accommodate employees who are legally entitled to accommodation," the city said in a Thursday statement.
Toronto Public Health said the city's vaccination policy serves as a model for others to adopt, although it "goes above and beyond" de Villa's recommendations for employers.
The public health unit also published a resource guide for workplaces drafting their own policies and outlined minimum recommended standards.
Those expectations include requiring employees to show proof of vaccination or written proof from a doctor of nurse outlining a medical exemption, including details on whether the exemption is time-limited or permanent.
The health unit also recommended that unvaccinated workers take an education course about the risks of remaining unvaccinated on the job.
De Villa also advised organizations come up with a proof-of-vaccination system for gatherings of 1,000 people or more.
The Ontario Hockey League said Friday that it would require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from all eligible people attending league events in the upcoming season, including spectators at games and practices.
Some hospitals subject to the minimum employee vaccination or testing policies unveiled Tuesday had by the end of the week moved forward with stricter immunization rules for staff -- an option supported by Ontario's top public health doctor when he announced the changes on Tuesday.
The University Health Network, which already began requiring rapid tests from 900 unvaccinated workers this summer, advised staff on Thursday of plans to move to a full vaccine mandate, with exceptions for those considered medically exempt.
"I don’t want to lose any member of this team – but my responsibility is to make UHN as safe as I possibly can for our patients and for you," CEO Kevin Smith said in an notice to all staff at the Toronto hospital network.
The province told The Canadian Press this week that there are two accepted medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination under the health worker immunization policy. Those exemptions are an allergy to a component of the vaccine, confirmed by an allergist or immunologist, or if the person developed myocarditis or pericarditis after a first dose of an mRNA vaccine.
Also on Thursday, a group of children's hospitals said they would mandate the shots for staff, volunteers, learners and contractors at their sites, starting Sept. 7. The group noted the risk posed by the Delta variant to young patients who aren't yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and CHEO said in a statement that "all options will be considered to effectively enforce the policy" if people remain unvaccinated after completing a vaccine education course.
Ontario reported 650 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths from the virus on Friday. There were 135 patients in intensive care with COVID-related critical illness, with 77 people on ventilators.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press