RNAO’s continuing media profile: The August 2021 report

RNAO‘s top priority in August was to urge the provincial government to mandate vaccination for health-care workers, teachers and education staff, as well as implement vaccine passports  for all eligible Ontarians. Our media activity reflects that purpose. The announcement of a vaccine certificate system on Sept. 1 demonstrates the power of speaking out. As media presence goes, it was another busy month and there’s no sign September will slow down.

Vaccine certificates are a vital tool that should be implemented to help slow the spread of the Delta variant. On Aug. 5, RNAO’s board passed a motion calling on the Ontario and federal governments to enact vaccine certificates. In a media release published on the same day we urged the government to take this measure to avoid another lockdown. “We must address the fourth wave without lockdown measures. We must take this …step so people can resume their lives and the things they enjoy, while at the same time remaining vigilant.”

Responding to massive public pressure, on Sept. 1, Premier Ford announced the government will implement a vaccine certificate system beginning Sept. 22. Ontarians will be required to show proof they’ve received both COVID-19 vaccinations before entering high-risk indoor public settings, including bars, casinos, gyms, theatres and indoor dining in restaurants. The plan does not require people to show proof to access personal care services, retail stores and places of worship, which RNAO says is a missed opportunity in our Sept. 1 media release. I told the London Free Press on Sept. 2 that Ontario must extend this system to include more non-essential services and also move fully with mandatory vaccination for all health-care workers, teachers and education staff. “We welcome the announcement (and) all that is in it, and we will continue to ask for more,” we said.

We are continuing our #Fully Vaccinated campaign. Our president penned a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star on Aug. 4 reminding us that vaccine hesitancy must be addressed with facts, evidence and accurate information. “Shaming people who hesitate to take the vaccine is not the way to change their mind,” said Morgan Hoffarth, “We all have a role to play in addressing vaccine hesitancy in a way that informs and educates, rather than shames.”

A new school year is just days away and the government must ensure students remain safe during in-class learning. On Aug. 3, my op-ed was published in the Toronto Star calling on the government to provide more details on its school reopening plan. “Protecting children, their families and our communities must be our government’s laser focus. There has been ample time to plan ahead for the upcoming school year,” I wrote. On the same day, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore shared the government’s school reopening plan. It includes indoor masking for grades one through 12, self-screening and cohorting. On Aug. 4, the government announced $25 million in funding to improve ventilation in schools.

In response to the school reopening plan, RNAO issued a media release on Aug. 3 to highlight measures we recommend the government adopt, as well as to raise concern about the lack of physical distancing guidelines and mandated masking for all education settings – including for children in daycare and kindergarten. We were also disappointed to see only one paragraph dedicated to the importance of vaccination in the plan, encouraging vaccination rather than mandating it for teachers and other education staff. Minister of Education Stephen Lecce had said in past press conferences that vaccines won’t be mandated in schools, but as I told inSauga.com on Aug. 4, “Given how effective vaccines are in the face of the highly transmissible Delta variant and the emerging Lambda variant, nurses will continue to insist on mandatory vaccination for all education staff unless they have a medical exemption.” I told QP Briefing (Aug. 26), “it’s time to move. Every day is a life too late.” On the Rob Snow Show (Aug. 31) I reiterated to the host that “it is essential to use all the tools that we have at our disposal to protect the reopening of schools.” On Aug. 17 the government announced that teachers, health providers and other public employees will uphold vaccination policies, meaning, those who refuse or are medically unable to vaccinate will be subjected to regular testing instead.

As part of our three mandatory asks, RNAO continues to speak on the need for mandatory vaccination for all health-care workers across all health sectors and settings. On Aug. 8, Dr. Moore said the government is mandating vaccine policies for workers in hospitals, home care and ambulatory care as well as long-term care, which had been announced previously. Those who don’t show proof of vaccination must be tested for COVID-19 once per week and participate in an education session. However, this is not mandatory vaccination. The government is giving responsibility to individual health organizations to incorporate vaccine policies, which will likely lead to further confusion, inconsistencies across health sectors, and social divisiveness. This approach is too lenient. RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth told inSauga.com (Aug. 18) that “proof of full vaccination must be provided and the only exception should be for people with a medical exemption.” RNAO is calling for exempted staff to be required to provide a negative test a minimum of twice a week (or 24 to 48 hours prior to work for part-time and casual workers) instead of only once a week.

Earlier in the month, I spoke about why mandatory vaccination for health-care workers protects vulnerable populations. “This is about the seniors that are 80 plus in long-term care and out in the community that are at huge risk because of those who are unvaccinated”, I told CP24 on Aug. 10. RNAO board member and RN Deb Lefebvre told Ottawa Citizen (Aug. 23) that patients are worried. “I can’t tell you how many times I get asked if I am double vaccinated by patients,” said Lefebvre. RNAO is calling on the Ontario government to be a leader and mandate vaccination for health-care workers. Many hospitals have already shared their plans, including Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN). UHN is giving its staff until Oct. 22 to get vaccinated or be terminated from their roles. A group of major for-profit LTC home operators have come out with their policy that requires all staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12 or be put on unpaid absence, with one company saying those who refuse to be vaccinated will risk losing their jobs. AdvantAge Ontario, the association for non-profit LTC home operators has also called on the government to mandate vaccines for health-care workers. UHN‘s policies and the policies of the LTC groups highlight the need to ensure that health-care workers, patients and residents are safe during this fourth wave. On CP24 (Aug. 27), I said the news about LTC operators is fantastic but we need the premier to take charge and mandate this across all health sectors.

Acknowledging nurses’ exhaustion and burnout is a top priority for RNAO. I said to Capital Current on Aug. 5 that I understand the public wants to have their surgeries done, and safely. However, “nurses have run out of gas in the sense that they have been working 17 months without any reprieve.” With insufficient numbers of RNs, I said, the healthcare system can barely keep up with current demands. We need to bring more RNs into operating rooms, as well as recovery rooms, ICUs and critical care units. I told iHeart Radio on Aug. 10 that RNAO is calling for a slowdown on the resumption of medical services across the province to give nurses a chance to breath.

I spoke to the Financial Post on Aug. 19 about the toll of the pandemic on nurses, the growing RN shortage and the need to admit many more students to the BScN program. What you need most in a nurse is expertise and compassion. This means the ability to put yourself in the patient’s shoes and to prioritize their needs. “Some of [the patients] were dying [during COVID] and without the families there, nurses became not only the expert professional, but also the compassionate professional, and the human being trying to connect them and the family through an iPad,” I said. “Or simply hold the hand of the patient… so that person would feel more comfortable.” I also stressed the intelligence and mental flexibility required for nurses. We also need to address basic working conditions and remuneration. The government needs to repeal Bill 124, which caps wage increases for nurses at one per cent a year, lower than inflation, which is at 3.7%. This is driving nurses elsewhere, I said. 

The next federal election happens on Sept. 20. RNAO released its election policy platform on Aug. 20, which features four priority areas and asks Canadians to vote for health. RNAO has asked the leaders of the major federal parties for their views on the issues and will publish them on our website as we receive them. In a media release about the platform, RNAO highlighted that many vulnerable groups need attention from the next federal government. “Canada’s most vulnerable populations, especially LTC residents, individuals experiencing homelessness and those struggling with substance use must receive our dedicated attention. Our injustices with racialized communities and Indigenous communities must be fully recognized and repaired.”

RNAO continues to speak out for all of our RN, NP, and nursing student members and on behalf of Ontarians. The fall will bring new challenges as people move indoors and in-school learning resumes. Rest assured that RNAO will continue to use our collective voice to get nurses’ messages heard. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with. This past month, our voice resulted in 623 media hits. To view our media coverage, visit our COVID-19 Press Room.