RNAO’s continuing media profile: The September 2021 report

Throughout September, RNAO focused most of its media presence on the following topics:  Ontario’s new vaccine certificate system, condemning anti-vax protests, the federal election and the crisis facing the nursing profession.

The vaccine certificate system (announced on Sept. 1) took effect on Sept. 22, which means people are now required to show proof of full vaccination to enter high-risk indoor settings (e.g., indoor dining, bars, gyms, cinemas and sports venues). I wrote a letter to the editor for the Toronto Star (Sept. 11) in response to a Toronto reverend who was concerned about individuals not having to show their vaccine certificate to enter places of worship. RNAO shares this concern and urges the government to add places of worship as well as personal care services and non-essential retail to the list to prevent additional cases that may come from gathering in these indoor spaces. I told QP Briefing on Sept. 14 that I was surprised the government wasn’t mandating vaccines for employees in settings where proof of vaccination is required: “I think that the more consistency we have on the use of [these certificates], the more people will comply and people will protect others.”

On Sept. 24, the province announced it would be increasing capacity limits in theatres and sports venues. On the same day, RNAO published a media release arguing the government’s announcement should have instead focused on mandatory vaccination for all health-care workers, as many long-term care (LTC) residents are still being infected and dying from COVID-19 due to unvaccinated staff. In a Sept. 29 letter to the editor I wrote for the Globe and Mail, I highlighted the absurdity that health-care workers must show proof of vaccination to enter a gym or restaurant, yet can go to work unvaccinated and potentially infect  their patients. If you haven’t already, please sign and share RNAO’s Action Alert on nurses’ three mandatory asks. The good news is that on October 1st, Minister of Long-Term Care (LTC) Rod Phillips announced mandatory vaccination for all in-home LTC staff, support workers, students, and volunteers by November 15, unless a staff member has a valid medical exemption. See RNAO’s media release above.  

With the Ontario government still not moving on mandatory vaccines for all health-care workers across all settings and sectors, some hospitals and health-care organizations are developing their own policies. Southlake Regional Health Centre gave its staff until Sept. 7 to provide proof of full vaccination or to undergo twice-weekly rapid testing on their own time in addition to attending an education session. Under this policy, employees who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 30 could face termination with cause. I told NewmarketToday (Sept. 15) “this is a very difficult situation that health-care organizations have been put in by government not making vaccination mandatory. Patients need staff that is fully vaccinated so as not to add stress and to ensure safe care.” Meanwhile, Windsor Regional Hospital has suspended workers who were not vaccinated and has given them a deadline of Oct. 7 to get vaccinated or be terminated. I told CBC Windsor (Sept. 24) “to have any health-care professional, anywhere, in any health-care sector unvaccinated is a threat for patients.” In Kitchener-Waterloo and Wellington County, hospitals set a deadline of Oct. 12 for staff to be fully vaccinated or be placed on unpaid leave. “Health-care workers that are not fully vaccinated cannot be facing patients,” I told CTV News Kitchener on Sept. 27. RNAO fully supports hospitals and other health-care organizations that remove health-care workers who are not fully vaccinated from direct patient care.

A deeply worrisome development this month was the anti-vaccine protests held outside several hospitals, which led to the harassment of patients and health-care workers. This pandemic is providing “fringe groups of extreme ideologies a means of organizing,” I told CBC Windsor (Sept. 6).  On Sept. 7, RNAO issued a statement about these protests expressing “grave concern about the escalating violence and the inadequate action to avert these situations by local authorities and police services.”  We issued a joint statement with the Ontario Medical Association on Sept. 12 condemning these protests and calling for safe zones to be implemented around hospitals and other health settings, and since then, we’ve extended our call to include schools (see here and here). On City News (Sept. 12), I said “While many of these people are anti-vaxxers, there is a small percentage who are violent with white supremacist views.” With that in mind, we must protect health-care staff and patients. The group organizing these protests has leaders who are nurses. I told CBC Radio (Sept. 14) that this “is a disgrace to our profession.” Everyone has the right to peaceful protest; however, they should do so on the lawn at Queen’s Park and not put our already bruised health-care system in further jeopardy. On Sept. 25 I called in my blog to connect the dots and understand that far right extremism is a serious health threat.

On Sept. 20, Canadians headed to the polls for the federal election, which resulted in Justin Trudeau remaining prime minister under a minority government. Ahead of election day, RNAO issued a media release urging members to review our policy platform to make an informed decision and to vote for health. In response to the election results, I highlighted in QP Briefing (Sept. 21) that the nursing shortage and vaccine mandates are key issues that this government must tackle: “It affects all of us. We are one country. And so, we cannot afford to have every jurisdiction doing what they please.” I discussed my views on the election results in the first episode of RNAO’s new podcast series Small Talk.

The serious human resource crisis in nursing that Ontario is facing has been in the making for two decades, and it should not come as a surprise to health system leaders. RNAO has been warning governments, the Ontario Hospital Association and others during these two decades: Ontario has the lowest RN-to-population ratio in the country and this situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and by Bill 124, which puts a one per cent cap on wage increases for nurses. I told the Toronto Star (Sept. 26), “the only short-term solution is retention, retention and retention.” Without this, people can expect their surgeries to be delayed because there will not be enough RNs to care for them. There is no quick fix, but immediate changes are needed. We need to build careers for them here in Ontario. One way to transition out of burnout and rebuild our supply of nurses is by utilizing internationally-educated RNs. However, many of these nurses are experiencing extremely long wait times with the College of Nurses of Ontario to assess their skills and qualifications and become registered to work here. I told CBC News (Sept. 27) this long wait time “needs to be fixed because it’s a disservice to Ontarians…newcomers and the profession.”

As we move into the colder months and spend more time indoors, we expect the number of COVID-19 cases to rise. RNAO will continue its active presence in the media advocating for vaccine mandates and public health measures that will help keep us safe amid the fall and upcoming winter. Thank you to our many members who have also appeared in the media and are using their voices to speak out for nursing and health. Our media outreach this month resulted in 397 media hits. As always, you can view all our media coverage in our press room on the COVID-19 portal.