TORONTO — Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath reversed her position opposing mandatory vaccinations for education workers in the face of heavy criticism on Thursday.
"On Wednesday, I made a mistake suggesting a mandatory vaccine policy during a global pandemic should take a back seat to charter rights," she said in a statement. "I regret the comment. I was wrong."
Horwath said in a CBC interview that she considered it a charter right for people to refuse the vaccine and supported regular rapid virus tests for unvaccinated education workers before they come to work.
A day later, she issued a video statement to walk back the comments.
"I fully support mandatory vaccination in health care and education, based on science and public health priorities," she said.
"I should have made that position clearer, much earlier, in support of the health and safety of the most vulnerable among us: seniors, people with disabilities, people who are sick, and children who can’t yet get their vaccines."
Premier Doug Ford has said he won't mandate vaccinations for workers, saying he thinks it's a constitutional right to refuse the shot. He's also said he doesn't support a proof-of-vaccination system that would allow people to participate in certain activities if they take the shots.
His government's back-to-school plan, released this week, doesn't require COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible teachers or students.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has been calling for mandatory COVID-19 shots for education workers ahead of the September return to school. He's also supported mandatory shots for health workers, a position shared by several professional groups representing health-care workers.
Del Duca said Thursday, before Horwath's reversal, that she and Ford were appealing to "anti-vax" voters and said Horwath's stance was disappointing for progressives in Ontario.
"I don't want anyone to lose their job, but it's the right thing to do," Del Duca said of mandatory shots, adding that he thinks the policy is reasonable and responsible.
He said such a policy could involve outreach to help make vaccine-hesitant workers more comfortable about vaccination, and some people could be redeployed into other roles if they don't take the shots.
The head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said early Thursday on Twitter that Horwath was getting "bad advice."
"We need mandatory vaccination for ALL healthcare workers and education workers, unless they have a medical exemption. PERIOD," Doris Grinspun wrote.
In a since-deleted tweet, federal Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus also criticized Horwath's initial stance.
"I just wrote to the party and told them they better push her to walk back her vaccination comments because the (Liberals) will drive a truck over our party for such idiocy," he wrote on Wednesday.
Horwath had previously said she supports adding COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required immunizations for children to attend school.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also stated support on Thursday for mandatory vaccines for education workers, unless they have a medical exemption, and for eligible students.
Canada has not yet approved any COVID-19 vaccines for use in children under 12.
Eighty-one per cent of adults in Ontario had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose as of Thursday and 72 per cent were fully vaccinated.
The province, school boards and unions representing teachers and education workers told The Canadian Press last month that they are not keeping data on the vaccination rate among education staff.
Ontario reported 213 COVID-19 cases on Thursday and 14 deaths from the virus, though 12 of the deaths occurred in previous months and are now being reported due to a data cleaning initiative.
According to Public Health Ontario, from the end of June to the end of July, unvaccinated people were eight times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people. Unvaccinated people 60 and older were 15 times more likely to be hospitalized than their fully vaccinated counterparts.
There were 110 patients in intensive care with COVID-related critical illness on Thursday and 77 people on ventilators.
The Ontario Hospital Association noted on Thursday a "slow increase in the number of patients with COVID-related critical illness," declaring on Twitter that "there will undoubtedly be a fourth wave among unvaccinated Ontarians."
"The OHA is urging all eligible residents to receive both COVID shots as soon as they can to help ensure that access to non-COVID related hospital services is not disrupted a further time," the association said. "The pandemic is ending but the fourth wave could inflict a deadly toll."
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, has also said he expects cases will increase in the fall when people move indoors and congregate together in schools.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press