At least two Toronto hospitals have now implemented new provincial guidance allowing health-care workers who are close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases to stay on the job with regular testing in order to avoid staffing shortages.  

The Ministry of Health is now recommending that asymptomatic health-care workers who are deemed a close contact of someone with COVID-19 be permitted to return to work immediately so long as they undergo a PCR test “as soon as possible” and partake in a daily rapid testing program for a period of 10 days following the exposure.

Chief Medical officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has argued that the new guidance is necessary to keep the “health system functioning” amid soaring case counts brought about by the spread of the Omicron variant.

Moore notified Ontario hospitals of his test-to-stay recommendation on Dec. 17.

Both Michael Garron Hospital and Humber River Hospital confirmed to CP24 Wednesday evening that they have now implemented the policy.

“MGH recently implemented a ‘test-to-work’ policy that requires staff who do not have COVID-19 symptoms but have had an exposure to someone with COVID-19 to continue to work after a negative PCR test under certain conditions,” Michael Garron Hospital Vice-president Wolf Klassen said in a statement. “This policy is consistent with other GTA hospitals and helps ensure healthcare workers at high risk for COVID-19 infection remain at home, while healthcare workers who are low risk can continue working at the hospital while undergoing daily screening for symptoms and more frequent testing.”

It is up to individual hospital networks to decide whether to follow the new guidance.

On Wednesday a spokesperson for the University Health Network, which counts Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital among its facilities, told CP24 that a test-to-stay policy for employees is being considered but has not yet been implemented.

“Certainly, you know, we're now bumping up against the holiday season so we're we are seeing some decreases in staff who are going on vacation as well as, fortunately a decrease in our volume,” Dr. John Granton, director of health services at UHN, told CP24 in an interview Wednesday. “So I think we're looking at this day by day and each hospital is different. So I think each hospital is judging its needs relative to what the different alternatives are.”

He said it’s important for people to understand that hospitals are being “thoughtful” about the guidance and will not proceed recklessly.

“We certainly don't want to expose either health-care workers or patients to unnecessary risks. So we won't go in to this with reckless abandon,” Granton said. “We'll be very considerate and thoughtful and speaking with our partners across the organization before we implement this.”



But speaking out about new provincial guidance, one union leader argued that the policy puts everyone “at-risk.”

Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, told CP24 on Wednesday that health-care workers are worried that the policy will increase the likelihood of them being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace.

The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions represents approximately 40,000 health-care workers, including registered nurses and personal support workers.

“They don't feel safe and they shouldn't because 25,491 of them have caught COVID at work and 24 are dead,” Hurley said. “People feel generally that, you know, their work, their life, their safety, the safety of the patients is not actually valued and it's measures like this, which put the workers and more importantly patients at risk that make them feel this way.”

The updated guidance from the ministry still requires any close contact who develops symptoms to isolate at home until they receive a negative PCR test result.

But it provides a path for asymptomatic workers to remain on the job, even if it takes them days to access a PCR test.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Moore said that if hospitals don’t change their policies around close contacts there will likely be a “high absenteeism” rate in the coming weeks and months that could further strain resources and threaten the health-care system’s ability to function.

Hurley, however, pointed out that by allowing close contacts of positive cases into the workplaces, existing staffing shortages could be further exacerbated.

“More people are going to get sick as a result of bringing people who are potentially infected and asymptomatic into the workplace,” he warned.

-          With a report by CP24’s Beatrice Vaisman