Ontario long-term care workers will have extra time to get third COVID-19 vaccine doses as the Omicron variant drives up outbreaks and limits access to vaccine clinics.
Staff in the sector had initially been given until Friday to get booster shots in order to stay on the job. But the date has now been pushed back to March 14, a spokeswoman for the long-term care minister said Thursday.
"In response to the pressures Omicron has put on long-term care homes — such as vaccine appointments being delayed due to infection and clinics cancelled due to outbreaks — Ontario is extending the deadline for eligible long-term care staff and caregivers to get their third doses," Vanessa De Matteis wrote in an email.
"This will help ensure staff are able to get their third doses while preserving staffing levels and maintaining the care levels that residents deserve."
De Matteis said 77 per cent of long-term care staff who are eligible to get third doses had received them as of Sunday.
Fifty-six per cent of the province's long-term care homes were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks as of Thursday.
Resident cases -- 2,661 active as of Thursday -- were close to the numbers seen in early 2020 when outbreaks and infections ravaged the province's long-term care homes, prompting the province to request military assistance.
Virus-related deaths dropped significantly in the homes since vaccinations became available early last year, but those numbers have also been rising in recent days and weeks. The province reported 26 long-term care resident deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday and 37 the day before.
Reported COVID-19 cases among long-term care workers have been higher this month than at any other point in the pandemic.
The province has started administering fourth vaccine doses to long-term care residents and mandated boosters for workers, citing the heightened risk to vulnerable residents in the homes. It has also introduced restrictions on visitors and other activities in a bid to control spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Unions and industry groups had expressed the likely need for an extension to the booster mandate, which they said would come at a time when homes were already struggling with Omicron-driven staff shortages.
Before extending the booster deadline, the province had said homes could request seven-day extensions for individual workers on a case-by-case basis, with no limit on the number of extensions for each person.
Union leaders expressed doubt on Thursday that the case-by-case approach would work effectively without worsening the current staffing situation.
They also said the government should make vaccines more accessible because many workers are too busy to get to appointments outside their scheduled shifts.
"These are people who are already exhausted after two years of working these schedules," said Michael Hurley with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"(The government) also needs to take steps to bring the vaccine to the workers if we want to lift those numbers up."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press