Long-term care workers in Ontario will be required to get inoculated against COVID-19 due to an increase in outbreaks in the industry.
Unvaccinated staff were previously able to participate in a fast testing program, but all in-home workers, students, and volunteers will now be required to be completely vaccinated by Nov. 15.
Rod Phillips, the Minister of Long-Term Care, told reporters at a press conference that the decision was made in response to concerns about reduced vaccination rates at some facilities.
His announcement comes as the ministry posts information about the vaccination rates at Ontario’s long-term care homes for the first time, revealing that there are several facilities where barely half of staff are fully vaccinated and 18 with vaccination rates lower than 70 per cent.
“These rates are not acceptable, especially in the context of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible and more likely to lead to serious death or illness,” Phillips said.
About 90 per cent of long-term care staff are vaccinated but Phillips said that it has become clear in recent weeks that the sector was “simply not going to get to the level of vaccination that it needed to get to” without a vaccine mandate.
In fact, the data released on Friday suggests that there are a number of homes where vaccination rates lag well behind the general public.
The Labdara Lithuanian Nursing Home in Etobicoke has the worst second dose coverage in the province with a vaccination rate of only 51 per cent. The Copernicus Lodge, which is currently in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, is also in bottom 10 with only 63 per cent of its staff and volunteers fully vaccinated. That home has had 22 residents die after contracting COVID-19.
Speaking with reporters, Phillips said the data increasingly indicates that unvaccinated staff are one of the “significant causes” of outbreaks at long-term care homes, including ones that lead to breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated residents.
For that reason, he said that the government had to act.
“This will be difficult for those who make a choice not to become vaccinated. But the reality is that our residents they don’t have a choice about where they are going to live. This is their home and we have to make sure that they are protected and we have to make sure that all of those other staff are protected as well,” Phillips said.
The announcement that vaccinations will be made mandatory for long-term care staff comes on the heels of a group of long-term care operators announcing in late August that they would place unvaccinated employees on an unpaid leave of absence amid concerns about the spread of the Delta variant.
The Ontario Long-term Care Association also called on the province to make vaccination mandatory for their staff, as well as all other workers in health-care settings.
Phillips, however, had refused to commit to mandating vaccines for workers as recently as last week when he announced the plan to publicize the vaccination rates at individual homes.
During his news conference on Friday, Phillips said that while there are no imminent plans to extend the vaccine mandate to visitors that step is “not off the table in the future.”
Phillips also said that homes will soon begin to randomly test fully vaccinated individuals, including staff, caregivers and visitors, in an effort to catch breakthrough cases quicker.
“The randomized testing is an acknowledgment that we do have breakthrough issues and although a vaccine makes you eight to 11 times safer and less likely to catch COVID that doesn’t mean you can’t,” he said.
The mandate announced by the Ford government on Friday will apply to all long-term care homes though it will not be extended to cover all healthcare workers, as some have called for.
In a statement, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that he was “relieved” to hear the news “but cannot understand why it took so long and why the mandate doesn’t apply to all health care settings.”
“These mandates should be immediately extended to all types of elderly and home care, as well as hospitals and schools,” he said.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents about 70 per cent of the province’s homes, also released a statement on Friday expressing support for the new policy.
“Vaccines are safe and effective, and their uptake across society is critical to ending this devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Residents, their families and staff, volunteers, students and support workers themselves deserve certainty around their safety while receiving or supporting someone with care,” CEO Donna Duncan said. “Homes that are struggling with lower rates of vaccine uptake among their teams will require more support, in partnership with public health authorities and the Ontario Government, to overcome barriers and support staffing plans as needed.”
COVID-19 outbreaks are now active in 19 long-term care establishments in Ontario. There was a total of 53 positive cases among residents and 43 positive cases among employees in these outbreaks.
More than 4,000 long-term care residents have died as a result of catching COVID-19 since the outbreak began, with the majority of those deaths occurring during the pandemic’s first two waves, when immunizations were not readily accessible.