TORONTO — Vaccination requirements for restaurants, gyms and other public settings in Ontario may soon be lifting, but mandates for staff and even visitors in some hospitals will likely be in place much longer.

Premier Doug Ford declined last year to implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for staff at hospitals – though only one hospital was opposed to it – but many put their own policies in place. The Canadian Press asked more than a dozen of those hospitals if they would be lifting their mandates as the province removes its vaccine certificate system next month, and all said no.

“We are not out of the pandemic yet,” said Cambridge Memorial Hospital’s president and CEO, Patrick Gaskin.

“Right now, it is a further layer of safety within the organization and assures our patients that everyone surrounding their care is vaccinated.”

Ontario’s vaccine certificate system is ending March 1, when proof of vaccination will no longer be required in public settings, though businesses may choose to keep it in place on their own. But those are very different places than institutions caring for vulnerable patients, Gaskin said.

“It’s also a choice,” he said. “So in that restaurant, you’ve chosen to go into it. In that gym, you can keep some social distancing. Our patients can’t do that.”

Visitors at many hospitals are also required to be double vaccinated and hospitals have also placed limits on the number of people allowed to visit during the pandemic. 

It’s not a policy that was entered into lightly, said Gaskin.

“That requirement is not the philosophy that we like to operate under,” he said. “When you create barriers to it, you do exclude people. Ultimately, we will want to move to withdraw them … it’s just when will be the right time.”

Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance president and CEO Andrew Williams said having access to loved ones as a patient is important, but so is maintaining a safe environment in the hospital.

The four hospitals in southwestern Ontario that are part of HPHA require family caregivers to be double vaccinated and that will stay in place for now, Williams said. They want to see how hospital capacity is affected by the broader reopening first, he said.

“We’ll commit to re-evaluating all of our policies moving forward as an organization, but not until we have a better handle on what are the impacts going to be on hospitals, as public health measures are eased,” Williams said.

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said in a statement that the “vast majority” of hospitals implemented their own mandatory vaccination policies and the association expects them to continue.

“Healthcare workers within Ontario’s hospitals are already required to show evidence of immunity for certain communicable diseases such as measles, rubella, varicella, tuberculosis etc. at the time of hire,” he wrote. 

“At the end of the day, there is no reason to treat the COVID-19 vaccine any differently … We all have a duty to get vaccinated as it helps to keep ourselves and those around us safe, including our most vulnerable in hospitals and other health-care settings.”

SickKids, University Health Network, The Ottawa Hospital, Hamilton Health Sciences, Queensway Carleton Hospital, Bluewater Health, Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, London Health Sciences Centre and St. Mary’s General Hospital are among those who say their staff vaccine mandates will remain.

“As restrictions are lifted, we must remember that the pandemic is not over,” St. Mary’s General Hospital president Lee Fairclough said in a statement. 

“As healthcare workers, it remains our responsibility to continue to take every step possible – as we’ve done throughout everything – to protect our patients and our staff, which includes our mandatory vaccination policy.”

The University Health Network said its policy is permanent.

Some hospitals say they may review their visitor restrictions, which include mandatory vaccination policies and limiting the number of people who can visit. 

London Health Sciences Centre updated its visitor policy as of Wednesday, including allowing non-essential care partners, who were prohibited in December in response to the Omicron wave, as long as they’re vaccinated. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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