RNAO’s continuing media profile: The October 2021 report

On Nov. 3, the Ontario government announced it would not move forward with mandating COVID-19 vaccination for all health-care workers – a huge failure of the government to engage a necessary measure for which RNAO has advocated since July 2021. This came after the premier wrote to hospital administrators and other health-care stakeholders (including RNAO) on Oct. 15 asking for their input on this policy.  As expected, RNAO responded in support of a vaccine mandate, and so did 120 out of 140 hospitals as well as the Ontario Hospital Association. The premier, in rejecting the vaccine mandate, expressed concern about the impact of the potential departure of “tens of thousands” of health-care workers.

In a media release issued on Nov. 3 in response to the announcement, I said “this decision by Premier Ford is a disgrace and shows a lack of courage to do what’s right for Ontario’s patients and workers.” On CP24 (Nov. 3), I said the premier is creating a similar issue to what happened in the U.S. where unvaccinated workers moved to sectors that didn’t require vaccination. “My biggest fear is home care where you have very vulnerable people,” I stated.  On Nov. 4, I told 610 CKTB that “vaccines are a hugely important layer of protection. Patients need all the protection.” RNAO continues to urge Premier Ford to do the right thing and reverse this decision to protect Ontarians as the pandemic persists. Please RT urgently.

The same day the decision on mandatory vaccination was announced, the government also shared that as of Nov. 6, COVID-19 booster shot eligibility expands to include: people 70 years and older, those who received two doses of AstraZeneca, frontline health-care workers, and First Nations people.  I told Global News (Nov. 3) RNAO welcomes this announcement because health-care workers are “face-to-face with COVID-19 patients as well as taking care of other patients.”

RNAO also continues to insist that third shot boosters in rich countries such as Canada cannot come at the expense of providing the first shot to most of the population in the poorest countries in the world. The reality is that only 3% of people in the poorest countries are vaccinated, while 70% in the rich countries have had at least one shot. Rates of full vaccination are even lower. For example, in Nigeria, an African country with a population of 210 million people, only 3.1 million have been fully vaccinated (1.5%)! Addressing this gaping inequity between rich and poor is crucial if we want to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, as viruses don’t know frontiers.

Throughout the month of October, RNAO continued to speak to the media about the impact COVID-19 is having on nurses and other health-care workers. Specifically, we spoke about the vaccine mandate for long-term care (LTC) workers and the urgent need to extend it to all health-care workers across all health sectors, the Ontario government’s worrisome reopening plan, and our urgent call to repeal Bill 124. Below is a summary of themes and examples of our extensive media exposure in October.

On Oct. 1, Minister of LTC Rod Phillips announced a vaccine mandate for all in-home staff, support workers, students and volunteers in LTC, effective Nov. 15. RNAO issued a media release in response to the announcement commending the minister for taking this crucial step to protect LTC residents and calling on Premier Ford to go even further. On Oct. 7, I told Zoomer Radio  “we need to expand this to all sectors because unvaccinated staff are leaving long-term care and moving to home care.” The same day, I told Ottawa Sun, “Long-term care residents are among the most at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.” As I told the Toronto Star on Oct. 15, mandates need to be across the board. If you haven’t already, sign and share RNAO’s Action Alert demanding Premier Ford mandate vaccination for all health-care and education workers and to establish safe zones to protect them.

Despite the lack of a province-wide directive, vaccine policies are in effect at many hospitals across the province. In several hospitals unvaccinated staff have been placed on unpaid leave or terminated. At Bluewater Health in Sarnia, roughly 30 to 40 hospital workers on Oct. 6 were presumed to be unvaccinated after refusing to disclose their vaccination status. These workers won’t lose their jobs as long as they show proof of an upcoming vaccine appointment. At Grant River Hospital in Kitchener, 171 staff members were put on unpaid leave after failing to meet the Oct. 12 deadline.

On Oct. 1, I said to the London Free Press that without a directive that extends to all nurses and other health-care workers, the result is an ineffective patchwork approach that leads to inconsistencies across the sector. “Enough is enough,” I said, adding that a palliative home care patient profiled in that newspaper’s story shouldn’t have to worry if they’re being put at risk by their care providers. “The RNAO has been asking, and was first out the door, on mandating vaccination of all health-care workers across all sectors and settings.” That’s the only way to prevent unvaccinated health-care workers from simply changing workplaces or sectors.

On Oct. 22, Premier Ford announced his government’s reopening plan for the next several months including a tentative timeline for lifting certain public health measures. The plan removed capacity limits for indoor settings (including bars, restaurants and gyms) on Oct. 25 and could see proof-of-vaccination requirements gone as early as January. RNAO issued a statement in response to this announcement expressing our disappointment. The government is gambling with people’s health as we move into the colder months. Following the announcement, I told iPolitics that I hope the province doesn’t fully reopen until March when more time can be spent outdoors. It is crucial that we keep these measures in place as winter begins, to keep our case count low.

RNAO continues to speak loudly and sharply about the nursing shortage – a human resources disaster with devastating consequences for the public and the functioning of the health system. Ontario has the lowest-RN-to-population ratio in the country! I strongly encourage you to listen to the hour-long CBC Radio call-in program Ontario Today, where I was privileged to be the guest. It was moving to hear the accounts of callers who shared their personal experiences on how the nursing shortage impacts them. It is critical that politicians, civil servants and employers hear the lived experience of frontline health-care workers and their family members, so they gain a deeper understanding of their suffering and the urgent need for action. I was heartbroken by nurses and their loved ones who shared their work experiences and the impact on their personal lives throughout the pandemic. Please know that RNAO is here to support you.

A critical issue contributing to the nursing shortage is Bill 124 – legislation that caps salary increases for nurses and other public sector workers to one per cent. I told CTV News Kitchener on Oct. 13: “More (nurses) will leave the profession because of Bill 124 than because of mandatory vaccination.” Nurses and other health-care workers have been the backbone of our health system during this pandemic and lowering their pay (in real terms when discounting inflation) is an insult to the dedication they’ve shown to their profession and all Ontarians. “We have to solve this. We are facing a mega-crisis in nursing and there’s not a peep about it from the premier or the minister of health,” I told  Toronto Sun on Oct. 25. Sign RNAO’s Action Alert calling on the premier to immediately repeal Bill 124.

I urge you to join RNAO -- with your co-workers, families and friends -- on Sunday, Nov. 14 at 12 p.m. ET at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto to protest Bill 124 and support nurses. RNAO’s President Morgan Hoffarth, President-Elect Claudette Holloway and several of our board and assembly members will be attending. I am honoured to be amongst the speakers and hope to see you there and please remember to follow all public health measures if you plan to attend, including wearing a mask and physical distancing.

RNAO will continue to speak out for our members and for health care as a whole. In October, our media outreach resulted in 300 hits. As always, visit our COVID-19 press room to stay updated with our media interviews and activities.