On Tuesday, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced some new measures to buttress the province’s healthcare workforce as the ravages of Omicron continue to pile up. Alternatively though, the story of the day was not about hospitals, it was about schools. The official announcement about the return to in-person learning in Ontario schools is tomorrow, but today the news about about more nurses got drowned out.
“Today, I’m pleased to announce that our government is collaborating with Ontario Health and the College of Nurses of Ontario to deploy internationally educated nurses to hospitals and long term care homes in need of staffing support,” Elliott announced.
“Through this initiative, these nurses who have applied for registration with the CNO to practice in Ontario will have the opportunity to meet their application requirements by working in healthcare settings under the supervision of a regulated health care provider,” Elliott explained. “More than 1,200 applicants have already expressed interest in participating and the matching process with hospitals is expected to begin later this week.”
According to Elliott, this new direction will allow provincial hospitals, care homes and other medical facilities to add another 6,000 new health professionals. In terms of the beds, Elliott noted that Ontario still has about 600 ICU beds available, and can get an additional 500 beds if required. “Our government will continue to closely monitor prolonged hospitalizations and ICU admissions as we respond to Omicron and will not hesitate to take further action if needed,” Elliott added.
“I’m relieved the Ford government has finally listened to the calls from healthcare leaders to deploy internationally educated nurses in Ontario,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner. “For months, Ontario Greens have called for this as part of our comprehensive nursing recruitment and retention plan.”
Matthew Anderson, CEO of Ontario Health, said that the first cohort of nursing students, as many as 300, could be in 50 different hospitals across Ontario by the end of the week with an eye to getting 1,200 people situated by the end of March.
“Every person that we can get to that frontline of care makes a difference, and so we’re very keen to get this underway,” Anderson said. “By the way, the idea is that when these folks are matched with an agency, they complete whatever their requirements are for their licenses, and then they become a permanent employee of that agency. These are folks who want to get permanently into the workforce.”
The reporters on the call though wanted to talk about schools. Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore will be making the official announcement about schools re-opening on Wednesday afternoon, but the news started leaking Monday night that it was the intention of the Ontario government to re-open schools as scheduled on January 17.
“We know that it helps students to be in school for their mental and physical health, and that is why our government, and particularly Minister Lecce, have done everything that we can to make our schools safe for students,” Elliott explained.
“We have introduced special clinics for teachers to be able to get the vaccinations, we’ve sent millions of masks to staff and three-ply masks for students as well, we’ve also ordered over 3,000 more HEPA filter units to make sure that we can have the appropriate ventilation and clean air for children,” Elliott added. “So we are taking every step that we can possibly take to make sure that our schools are safe for our children to return to.”
Elliot couldn’t explain though what assurances that conditions at schools are safe, or what conditions have changed in the last two week that indicate the schools are safer now than when they were in the days leading up to New Year’s. Another joint statement from unions representing Ontario’s school teachers expressed doubt about the government’s plan to re-open schools safely on Monday.
“Ontario’s teachers and education workers desperately want schools to open safely to ensure that students can enjoy the many benefits of in-person learning. We share the Ontario Science Table’s view that school closures ‘should be part of a pandemic control strategy in only the most catastrophic circumstances,’” the statement read.
“However, the Ford government’s series of belated half-measures and unfulfilled promises jeopardize the ability for schools to reopen and stay open, especially as the Omicron variant continues to pose significant risks to our communities.”
“Doug Ford has had a month to add safety measures while kids were out of school – but he didn’t, and now we’re down to the wire,” said official opposition leader Andrea Horwath in her own critique. “In fact, he made it worse by denying testing and scrapping reporting. Parents, teachers and education workers are anxious that they won’t be told when they’ve been exposed to COVID right in their own classroom.”
Back at the press conference, Elliott said that PCR tests will be available for all staff and students at Ontario schools when classes begin Monday. “We are also working with the Federal government to get more rapid tests, and that is a priority for us,” she added. “We received over three-and-a-half million rapid tests yesterday, and many of them will be going to schools for students to be able to do those tests.”