TORONTO — Most Ontario long-term care workers have just under two weeks to get their third COVID-19 vaccine doses, but union and industry groups say more time is needed to meet the government’s target as staff infections reach record levelsand workers struggle to access appointments.
The government has mandated booster doses for workers in the sector, citing the heightened risk to vulnerable residents living in the homes that saw thousands of deaths and outbreaks earlier in the pandemic.
Workers, volunteers and students have until Jan. 28 to get their third shots and stay on the job, if enough time has passed since their second dose. People who became eligible for boosters after Jan. 1 have until March 14 to get third shots, and those with recent COVID-19 infections will also have more time to get their jabs.
The Long-Term Care Ministry says the majority of staff are currently eligible for third doses. As of Jan. 12, close to 64 per cent of those people had already gotten third shots, a spokesman said Friday, adding that “the expectation remains that eligible staff receive a third dose by Jan. 28.”
But with the Omicron variant driving outbreaks, worker absences and staff infections to record-breaking numbers, those on the inside say the target – though important to protecting residents – will be nearly impossible to reach sector-wide in time.
“We should aim to get it done on the 28th but understanding the circumstances of each one of these homes,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a union representing long-term care workers in the province. "It really is down to individual homes and circumstances right now."
She said extending the approaching deadline on a case-by-case basis would make sense, especially as workers struggle with intense workloads due to staff shortages, which predate the pandemic but have worsened during the Omicron wave.
“Right now, everything in the lives of these frontline workers is a challenge,” she said.
Clinics run in the homes would help get more people vaccinated faster, Stewart said – something that’s happening in some places, but not across the province. It’s become challenging for people to book appointments outside of work, too, now that all adults in the province are eligible for boosters and clinics prioritizing education workers and children ahead of schools reopening on Monday.
Lisa Levin, CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, which represents municipal and non-profit long-term care homes, said there have been “quite a few barriers” to meeting the Jan. 28 deadline for booster shots.
“A lot of homes are not going to be able to meet it and we're hoping that the ministry can delay it,” Levin said in an interview on Friday.
Hesitancy is also an issue, she noted, with some people unwilling to mix vaccine types, and others blindsided by the new requirement to get three doses which was announced in late December, a few weeks after the mandatory two-dose rule took effect.
“People who are hesitant, this is a tough decision for them, and they've had to potentially make it one time, then two times and then they have to do it a third time,” she said. “Eventually some of them just say forget it.”
She also noted that because Ontario has not mandated vaccines for any other sector,some people can choose to go work elsewhere in the health system rather than meet the third-dose deadline.
The president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, a branch of the public sector employees union, said he also thinks the looming deadline will be challenging to meet given the current pandemic situation.
"Pushing the deadline back, I think, would make a lot of sense," Michael Hurley said.
He said the stress workers have been under over the past two years should also be taken into consideration with less rigid deadlines and on-site access to vaccines.
Hurley also pointed to the need for more guaranteed sick days so people can take time off if they have side-effects.
The Ontario Long-Term Care Association also acknowledged that "there may be some challenges" for all staff to meet the Jan. 28 deadline because so many workers have been infected and others can't access timely appointments in their regions.
CEO Donna Duncan said homes and health system partners are working on "regional solutions" to improve access to third doses, including some hospitals inviting long-term care staff to their on-site clinics.
Dr. Peter Juni, research director for the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said while the situation is challenging, the deadline is important so residents will be protected while Omicron is at its most widespread and dangerous.
"It's not something that we would need three months from now. It's really in the middle of this crisis," he said.
A Friday memo to operators from the associate deputy long-term care minister offered some clarity on possibilities for extensions that will be done individually, not sector-wide.
Erin Hannah wrote that homes can request seven-day extensions on a “case-by-case basis” for people in extenuating circumstances, with the possibility to repeat extensions for the same person.
Examples of such circumstances included inability to get a vaccine appointment, if a workplace clinic was cancelled due to an outbreak, if someone between the ages of 18 and 29 is waiting for third Pfizer dose as recommended by the Health Ministry, or if a person was recently infected with COVID-19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the Friday memo to operators came from the associate long-term care minister.