RNAO says government’s “shutdown” announcement doesn’t go far enough to confront third wave of COVID-19

RNAO issued the following media release on April 1 upon the Ontario government’s announcement of new public health measures.

Ontario’s health system is on the precipice of collapse and nothing short of a complete lockdown and stay-at-home order are needed to combat a fast and furious third wave of COVID-19 says the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO).

On Thursday (April 1), Premier Doug Ford announced what he is calling a province-wide 28-day “shutdown”. Under the plan, indoor dining and outdoor patio dining will no longer be permitted, with restaurants only able to offer take-out and delivery. Personal care services such as hair salons and barber shops will not be allowed to operate. However, under the government’s plan, many non-essential businesses will remain open with 25 per cent capacity, along with indoor religious services operating at 15 per cent capacity.

RNAO says the announcement does not go far enough to confront the biggest health crisis facing Ontarians and the province, since the outset of this pandemic. “This third wave is unlike any situation we have faced before. It is being driven by variants of the virus that spread much faster and cause more severe illness,” says RNAO CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun, pointing to the number of ill people occupying hospital intensive care unit (ICU) beds. “As of today (April 1), there were 2,557 new cases and 430 patients sick due to COVID-19 in ICUs, the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Critical Care Services Ontario.”

RNAO reiterates that vaccines alone are insufficient to contain the virus’s spread. “What is needed is bold action by Ontario’s premier and his team, and this is why we are disappointed with today’s announcement. The people who are ending up in hospital are in their forties and fifties – many from vulnerable communities – and they are very sick. These people have lives to lead, families to feed and love, yet they may not make it or will face a prolonged recovery after they leave the ICU. This virus, as we have repeatedly said, needs to be fought on two fronts: With ongoing tough public health measures to contain its spread and with a much more effective vaccine rollout than what we have seen so far in Ontario,” says Grinspun.

“We are very discouraged that the government is not listening to the voices of experts calling for a stay-at-home order. The province’s science table laid out its latest modelling projections on just how dire and dangerous the scenario is that is unfolding right before our eyes. It will get much worse without stricter measures to control the spread of the virus,” insists Grinspun.

Also, missing from today’s announcement is the plea of many – including RNAO – for paid sick days. “Many essential workers do not have access to this crucial employee benefit. The government of Ontario has an obligation to workers. It is obvious that workplace outbreaks account in large part for the increase in case counts and yet, there is still no provision for what should be a central public health measure in the fight against this virus – sick paid days,” urges Grinspun.

Premier Ford's failure to confront the virus in a decisive way also has implications for people who are awaiting diagnostic tests and surgeries for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and other serious conditions that require hospital care. “We have to remember that outside of COVID-19, people still get sick with other diseases and need care. Having to cancel diagnostic tests and/or surgical procedures to make room for those sick with the virus has serious implications for people’s health and the system itself,” says RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth.

RNAO says the government also needs to consider the health of health providers who have been caring for patients non-stop over the past 14 months. “Nurses are running on empty and almost at the breaking point and this is another important reason why we have to do everything in our power to contain a pandemic that is out of control in our communities,” says Hoffarth, adding exhausted nurses, physicians and other health providers poses its own risk. This is why RNAO released yesterday the results of a survey on the work and wellbeing of nurses, ringing the alarm bell on the looming crisis facing the nursing workforce in Ontario – a crisis, which will deepen given today’s deficient announcement.

When it comes to delivering vaccines, RNAO is again imploring the government to utilize the more than 20,000 home care and primary care nurses who can help speed up the vaccine rollout. RNAO sent a letter to Premier Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott on Feb. 10 about the importance of this. “This is urgent. For example, 7,500 home care nurses and their agencies are eager and ready to vaccinate homebound persons – yet very few have been given supplies of the vaccine and the go-ahead to roll these out,” says Hoffarth, adding “home care and primary care nurses can also support the urgent need to vaccinate essential workers in precarious work conditions like warehouses, schools and shelters.”

Hoffarth says the health of the province’s children also has to be top of mind and that is why doing everything possible to keep schools open and safe must trump the need for businesses to remain open. “If we can get past these next few weeks, with public health measures and dramatically slow down the spread of the variants, we will be able to return to some semblance of normalcy that Ontarians are yearning for. We are getting further and further away from that goal and this puts schools and children at higher and higher risk,” says Hoffarth, adding vaccinating teachers, children and their families in compromised communities must also be seriously considered.