Premier Doug Ford has written a letter to hospital administrators soliciting their input on the idea of mandating vaccination for all healthcare workers.
The Ford government currently requires all unvaccinated healthcare workers to participate in a rapid testing program but it has not yet taken the step of making vaccination mandatory, even as a number of hospitals have introduced their own policies and placed hundreds of non-compliant workers on unpaid leaves of absences.
In a letter sent to hospital CEOs and dozen of healthcare industry stakeholders obtained by CP24 on Friday, Ford acknowledged that some groups have pushed for a province-wide vaccine mandate for healthcare workers but said that any decision “will need to balance the risk” posed by COVID-19 with the risk of “further exacerbating health human resourcing challenges.”
Ford then asked the leaders a series of questions around whether they would support a provincewide vaccine mandate for healthcare workers and what potential impacts such a mandate would have on their ability to provide care.
“As I have always said, our government will do whatever it takes to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians,” he said in the letter. “That is why I am writing to you today requesting your input on vaccine mandates in hospitals, recognizing the recent challenges we’ve seen in other provinces as they’ve pursued similar policies.”
The Ontario Medical Association has been calling for a mandatory vaccine requirement for all healthcare workers since July.
But the Ford government has so far stopped short of making vaccination mandatory for all healthcare workers, as it did for employees in the long-term care sector earlier this month.
In his letter, Ford asked hospital administrators whether there are other parts of the system where unvaccinated workers could be re-assigned “including administrative or other non-patient facing roles.”
He also asked them to compare the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in healthcare settings with the risk of “widespread human resource implications that may result from a vaccine mandate.”
Quebec has previously pushed back a deadline for its healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated by a month amid concerns that it would have to suspend more than 22,000 people.
“According to recent estimates 15 per cent of our health system workforce remains unvaccinated, putting the magnitude of potential staff losses in tens of thousands,” Ford told reporters during a press conference at Queen’s Park on Friday morning. “Let me be clear: every hospital worker should be vaccinated, we encourage all of them to get vaccinated and the vast majority have. But at a time when our doctors and nurses are already stretched to their limits, especially in northern and rural areas, we can't afford to lose qualified staff.”
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has previously said that about 40 per cent of hospitals have implemented their own vaccine mandates for workers.
Some of those hospitals have already placed hundreds of employees on unpaid leaves, while others are expected to do so in the coming weeks.
Speaking with reporters, Ford said that Ontario is already facing a staffing shortage of approximately 15 per cent when it comes to frontline healthcare workers and may not be in a position in which it can afford to lose “tens of thousands” of additional workers due to a provincewide vaccine mandate.
He said that he is also concerned that the impact of such a mandate could have a profound effect on rural hospitals, where the staffing shortages are more pronounced.
“What is this going to do to the system months down the road? What it is going to do when people go in there for cancer surgery or diagnostics?” he asked. “What is it going to do to our healthcare system as whole? So those are the answers I am requesting from the CEOs. Can they maintain the quality? Can they still continue with the COVID-19 processes we have implemented. There is a lot of questions and I just want to make sure we get this right. I talk to the CEOs every single day and I get different stories depending on where they are whether they are in a rural setting or urban setting. So let’s just see what they come back with.”
The president and chief executive officer of University Health Network welcomes Ford's request on a potential vaccine mandate.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to give our perspective. I'm sure there'll be alternative perspectives from various groups," Dr. Kevin Smith told CP24.
UHN was one of the first hospital systems in the country to implement a strict vaccine requirement. Smith said 98 per cent of staff at UHN are fully vaccinated.
"That really came out of a decision that we heard from our patients who were consistently saying to me and to all of us at UHN, 'Can you guarantee me that people looking after me are vaccinated because I have a serious cancer. I'm a multi-organ transplant recipient. I'm seriously immunocompromised.'," he said.
"Our mission first and foremost is the needs of patients come first."
Meanwhile, the president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, Doris Grinspun, said the issue of staff shortages in the health-care sector preceded COVID-19 vaccinations.
"First of all, the great majority of nurses are vaccinated. The great majority of nurses want to work with people that are vaccinated and not with people that have not," Grinspun told CP24 Friday evening.
"If the premier is so concerned about the shortage, tell him to first repeal Bill 124."
The legislation passed in 2019 limits salary increases across the public sector to an annual rate of one per cent for three years.
"What we are asking is the premier to stand by those that already step up to the plate, including his own minister of long-term care, which mandated, as you know, vaccination for all health-care workers in long-term care. He's creating confusion," Grinspun said.
Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, agrees with Grinspun, saying that many health-care workers feel undervalued and unprotected during the pandemic.
"These labour issues need to be dealt with at a system level, and they're not," Hurley said.
"We are not going to be crippled by the vaccine mandates so much as by the general demoralization amongst the workforce as a result of the conditions in these environments."
Ford has given hospital administrators until Oct. 19 to respond to his letter.