TORONTO — Ontario won't mandate COVID-19 vaccines for hospital workers despite support from experts and stakeholders, prompting calls for the government to make public the local evidence it based the decision on.
Premier Doug Ford pointed to news from elsewhere in Canada about staff shortages from vaccine mandates and said existing policies will keep people safe without losing workers who refuse to get the shots.
"I am not prepared to jeopardize the delivery of care to millions of Ontarians," Ford said in a written statement on Wednesday. "Having looked at the evidence, our government has decided to maintain its flexible approach by leaving human resourcing decisions up to individual hospitals."
Ford's decision came after he wrote to hospitals and other stakeholders last month asking for input on the issue. He said the government looked at those responses and at "real-world evidence" and decided to stick with its current approach.
Currently, hospital workers in Ontario must get vaccinated or regularly get tested for the virus, though many hospitals have gone ahead with stricter policies. Hospitals that have placed on leave or terminated unvaccinated employees have reported staff losses of between one and three per cent.
Ford pointed to already high vaccination rates in hospitals as another factor behind his decision. He said hospitals are able to manage virus outbreaks with strong infection control protocols.
His statement also referenced news of surgery cancellations in British Columbia due to staff shortages after its vaccine mandate took effect and Quebec's decision to reverse its policy over human resources concerns.
Ford said the government will keep monitoring the situation and might revisit the policy.
Concerns were later raised about figures of potential job losses referenced by Ford in his statement, in which he claimed "tens of thousands" of workers might be off the job in the event of a vaccine mandate.
Health Minister Christine Elliott later told reporters that the number was "based on the premier's understanding of the situation before the letter was sent out." She did not provide a more specific figure of possible job losses, other than to say the impact of a vaccine mandate "could be very significant."
Elliott said the province is prioritizing catching up on surgeries and other procedures that were postponed during the pandemic.
"People have been waiting long enough," she said. "We have a responsibility to protect the health and wellbeing of all Ontarians, so that's why this decision is the right decision for Ontario right now."
Ontario has mandated COVID-19 vaccination for long-term care workers, with a deadline of Nov. 15 for staff to get immunized. But Ford has repeatedly said he is reluctant to mandate vaccines.
Elliott said Wednesday that some individual hospitals indicated they were against the policy because of potential human resources losses, but she refused to name the hospitals or provide a figure of how many were against it.
The Ontario Hospital Association had written to Ford in support of a provincewide mandate -- a position it said was endorsed by 120 of 141 member hospitals.
Opposition politicians called on the government to share documents and data backing up its claims.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she's skeptical of Ford's figure about the scale of the potential worker shortage.
"If the government's making decisions based on facts then they should be showing people what it is that they're making their decisions on. The minister has just indicated she's not prepared to do that," Horwath said. "The experts made it clear that no unvaccinated person should be working in health-care settings with the most vulnerable folks amongst us."
Liberal House Leader John Fraser accused the government of "fear-mongering" by not being transparent about its decision making.
Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, called the decision "a disgrace to patients and to the great majority of health-care workers who desperately are supporting mandatory vaccination."
In their letter to Ford, the Ontario Hospital Association had referenced spiking vaccination rates at hospitals with mandatory policies and said staff shortages from outbreaks are more difficult to manage than those from mandatory vaccination.
On Wednesday, the organization said in a statement it was disappointed in the government's decision and would welcome "continued dialogue" about the issue.
The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, an expert group that advises the government on the pandemic, had also written to Ford that hospital workers who aren't vaccinated may be out of work for long periods of time if infected with COVID-19, and said a vaccine mandate would make hospitals safer for vulnerable patients.
The Ontario Nurses' Association wrote to Ford saying the current policy allowing unvaccinated workers to be tested is reasonable and cited concerns about worker shortages.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press