The Ontario government has put its plans to lift all remaining public health restrictions on hold as its top public health official warns of a “difficult fall and winter” ahead.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore made the announcement during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon as he outlined Ontario’s plan to make vaccination policies mandatory for some high-risk settings and to begin administering third doses to those at highest risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

The news comes after Moore suggested last week that Ontario was “seven to 10 days” away from reaching the vaccination milestones that would allow it to exit its Roadmap to Reopen and lift virtually all remaining public health restrictions, including capacity limits and limits on gathering sizes but excluding indoor masking.

Ontario’s rolling seven-day average of new cases has risen 54 per cent since then and there are increasing concerns that Ontario’s hospitals could soon see another influx of COVID-19 patients, predominantly involving unvaccinated individuals.

For that reason, Moore has opted to put any further reopening on hold while issuing a directive requiring hospitals and home and community care service providers to have vaccination policies for employees, contractors, students and volunteers requiring that they either be fully vaccinated or undertake regular rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 and complete an education session about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The province says that the policies, similar to ones already in effect for the long-term care sector, will have to be in place by Sept. 7 and require that employees provide proof of vaccination or a legitimate medical exemption.

Under the policies, unvaccinated employees will have to submit a negative rapid test at least once a week with the cost being covered by the government. But Moore said that the frequency of the tests may be increased based on the level of community transmission.

The province has also indicated that the Ministry of Education will introduce a similar policy for all education workers and staff in licensed child care settings that will take effect prior to the beginning of the school year.

“We are aggressively preparing for the fall. I am sorry to say I think it is going to be a difficult fall and winter and hence the reason for putting these policies in play to best protect our communities, to protect those under 12 years of age who can't get vaccinated and to protect those (high-risk) settings,” Moore told reporters. “We need to be proactive to avoid the reactive closures that result in significant impacts on our mental, physical, social, and economic well-being.”

The new policy matches those already in place at many hospitals and while the move was criticized by some as a half-measure Monday, the head of Ontario’s COVID-19 science table told CP24 that it’s a good start.

“We need to start somewhere and I think it's an excellent start,” Dr. Peter Juni said. “What is important to realize is, if I'm working with vulnerable people I have two ways of modifying my risk of transmitting the virus to others; one is getting vaccinated, and the other one is getting tested and having an active test. So what you see out there is a pragmatic first step which is absolutely okay from my perspective.”

No timeline for lifting remaining restrictions

The Ford government had previously indicated that it would lift most remaining public health restrictions once it hit several vaccination milestones, including having 75 per cent of eligible residents fully vaccinated.

But those plans are now being put on hold while the province works to get the vaccinations in place and its vaccination rates up, Moore said.

There is currently no timeline for when the province could exit its Roadmap to Reopen as that will depend on the viral picture and the province’s success in curtailing the fourth wave of the pandemic.

“The testing strategy is one component of a multicomponent strategy,” Moore said. “Clearly, we hope that individuals embrace immunisation as the preferred choice but we needed a backup if they didn't and the rapid antigen testing is accessible, timely, and we have enough equipment to be able to distribute all across Ontario if needed.”

The ministry says that in addition to mandating vaccination policies for healthcare and education workers, it will also require them in a number of other high-risk settings.

Those include post-secondary institutions, licenced retirement homes, women’s shelters and congregate group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities.

News of the new mandate requiring vaccination policies comes in the wake of several groups openly lobbying for some form of mandatory vaccination for healthcare and education workers, including the Ontario Medical Association and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

The NDP and Liberals have also spoken out in favour of making vaccination mandatory for healthcare and education workers, though NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon that the policy introduced by the Ford government doesn’t go far enough and should have instead prohibited unvaccinated individuals from working in healthcare settings entirely.

“It seems to me that this is a kind of half-baked initiative that we heard from the chief medical officer of health today and it's troubling,” she said. “I have some sympathy for the guy, I mean we have a government and a premier who want to do the bare minimum. They want to do zero or the bare minimum and it's got to be tough for him to try to convince them to step up and do the right thing but I can tell you that what was announced today was not what people expected and it's not the right path. We have to be decisive here, we have to take the most strong measures that we can possibly take.”

The University Health Network had previously taken matters into its own hands by introducing a policy that required that its employees either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit a negative test prior to their arrival at work.