Lots of Criticism for Ontario’s New Year Pandemic Planning

Yesterday’s announcement from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore outlined the next phase of the pandemic fight: Kids are going back to in-person school next Wednesday, not everyone will be able to be tested now, capacity limits at large indoor settings will be reduced further, and fourth doses are coming to long-term care residents. Not everyone was pleased with the new directions though, or thinks they go far enough.

Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner again accused Premier Doug Ford and the Government of Ontario for dithering and delays, and noted that without free rapid tests, N95 masks, and 10 paid sick days for all essential workers that there are still huge gaps in Ontario’s public health protections.

“Today’s record case counts and Dr. Moore’s prediction that hospitalizations will continue to increase, coupled with his prediction that we are in for another 6-8 weeks of Omicron, are worrisome. It highlights why Ford can’t dither and delay in addressing the human resource crisis in our hospitals,” Schreiner said.

“This starts with recalling the Legislature to repeal Bill 124, which caps wage increases, so nurses are able to get fair wages and the respect they deserve,” Schreiner added. “Health care workers are already experiencing burn out, and staff shortages are common. Ford waited until the last minute to make a decision on schools. We can’t afford this ‘wait-and-see’ approach when it comes to workplace safety and our health care system.”

Before Moore’s announcement on Thursday afternoon, Official Opposition leader Andrea Horwath noted that with only a few days left in Christmas vacation and no announcement of a Back to School plan, it meant that Ford was putting Ontario’s school students in last place on his priority list.

“Rather than invest in safer schools and more testing, Mr. Ford is throwing in the towel and leaving kids, families and educators on their own,” Horwarth said after Thursday’s announcement. “I’m urging him to reverse his decision to restrict testing, and instead ramp up protections against COVID—especially in schools.”

The NDP have released their own five-point plan to protect schools, which includes smaller class sizes and bus loads, free N95 masks and rapid tests for students and school workers, a vaccine blitz with in-school clinics, mandatory vaccines for teachers and education workers, and a robust outreach and education plan about vaccinations.

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca had many of the same suggestions, and had some very harsh words for the premier. “Students and parents deserve so much better than Doug Ford’s incompetent scrambling,” Del Duca said. “His reckless response to the fifth wave is disrupting another school year and putting us all in danger.”

Raechelle Devereaux, the CEO of the Guelph Community Health Centre who has been acclaimed as the Liberal candidate for Guelph for this spring’s provincial election, added in her own statement Wednesday that vaccination has to be a priority to protect schools, pointing to her 8-year-old daughter’s COVID diagnosis this past April.

“I wish that we had had widely available vaccines last spring. Now that we do, we must immediately prioritize boosters for educators, and increase access to vaccines for children 5-11,” Devereaux said. “If our kids are robbed of another year in school it’s because Doug Ford ignored the experts and the science. He focused on his re-election campaign instead of the fight against COVID-19.”

A combined message from unions representing teachers and schools workers including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) noted that the Province’s actions didn’t go far enough, and that they were a little late with the notification of the plan.

“Teachers and education workers only learned of the provincial government’s decision to delay school re-opening when it was announced this afternoon,” read the statement. “Nevertheless, as representatives of those on the front lines in schools – that is, those teaching Ontario students and providing the vital services that support their education – our collective message remains the same: schools can be made safe for students and staff, with sufficient investment in the right tools and measures.”

The unions called for a number of additional measures to the ones announced by the Government of Ontario including regular asymptomatic testing in schools, prioritizing boosters for all staff in schools, smaller class sizes, adequate PPE for all staff, and a provincial cleaning standard that can be applied to all Ontario schools.

The Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA), which represents 70 per cent of the long-term care homes in the province, was not as critical as schools, and we’re hopeful that the new precautions and the announcement of fourth doses for residents will further safeguard the people staying in long-term care.

“Staffing levels remain a concern, given the transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Mandating third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for staff, ensuring they are prioritized for vaccination, and rigorous ‘test to work’ protocols will help to reduce staffing losses to the virus,” Donna Duncan, CEO of the OLTCA, in a statement.

“As visitation is paused, long-term care homes are doing everything they can to support the wellbeing of their residents, and are grateful for the continued presence of essential caregivers and their invaluable support to residents,” Duncan added.

Not all people in the healthcare sector are as understanding though. “Let’s get one thing straight: The Ontario government’s decision to shorten the COVID-19 isolation period to 5 days without also providing workers with free N95 masks, rapid tests & adequate paid sick days is a business decision, not a public health decision,” said Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine.

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) went further in their statement saying that “the government is waving a white flag” of surrender, and that they need to cancel all non-essential large in-person gatherings, and make the more advanced KN95 masks available to all Ontario school students, teachers and education workers. They also said that the province’s medical professionals desperately need some relief.

“We are seeing unparalleled rise in case numbers, a jump in the number of people who need a hospital bed, people who need intensive care, and all that requires the expert care of RNs. But guess what, our colleagues are running on empty,” said RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth in a statement. “Tragically, today’s announcement is the preamble to the total collapse of Ontario’s health-care system.”

“We have had some tough days in 2021, but we have learned how to combat the disease as it continues to change,” added Dr. Adam Kassam, president of the Ontario Medical Association, in his own statement. “We need to stay vigilant and resilient and we will get through this together. The single most important thing everyone can do to help is to get vaccinated and get their children vaccinated. If you have questions, ask your doctor or local public health unit.”

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