University Health Network to implement mandatory COVID-19 home testing for unvaccinated staff

Ontario’s largest hospital network will require mandatory and frequent testing for any staff who choose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The University Health Network, which includes Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital among others, will be the first major hospital and research organization in Ontario to create requirements around immunization for health-care workers.

The move comes as multiple countries have already made vaccination mandatory for health-care staff amid the rise of the fast-spreading Delta variant. And with fears of a fourth wave, Ontario’s lack of mandatory immunization policy has led some businesses and institutions to make their own policies.

The UHN is aiming to implement new rules that will create testing requirements for unvaccinated staff in their network by Aug. 9.

In an email to the Star, the UHN said it started communicating its new policy to staff at the end of June, so all employees, full-time, part-time or casual, would be well aware by the time it is enforced.

“We are implementing this to keep patients and staff as safe as we possibly can. The best protection for anyone is double vaccination, which has been made available to all employees of UHN,” said Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for UHN.

Once the policy is in place, staff must report whether they are vaccinated, whether they can’t be vaccinated due to a valid medical reason and provide documentation, whether they do not wish to report vaccination status, or whether they are choosing not to be vaccinated.

All who are unvaccinated must complete rapid home COVID-19 tests 48 hours prior to their shifts, which amounts to about three times a week, said Howard. Those who are not reporting their vaccination status or choosing not to be vaccinated must complete an education module about the vaccine.

About 18,000 UHN staff had already reported their vaccination status, as of July 12, and 750 home test kits were distributed, according to the UHN.

The vaccination rate for full-time staff is now at 85 and 90 per cent, Howard said.

“We are now working on ensuring that part-time and casual staff are aware of the reporting requirement,” she added.

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he did not support proof of immunization in any context. Ford said no one should be “forced” to get their shot.

His comments came as multiple countries, including France and Italy, have implemented mandatory vaccination policies for those working in health care. France also introduced a COVID-19 health pass Wednesday as infections have surged as the country contends with a fourth wave of the virus.

The pass requires a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination in order to visit cultural centres, museums, sports venues and movie theatres.

The Delta variant has continued to spread across Europe. There are concerns the same could happen in Canada if hundreds of thousands of people remain unvaccinated, despite the availability of an abundance of the vaccine. In Ontario, 80 per cent of adults have had one dose and 66 per cent have had two doses, as of Friday.

The Star asked several hospitals on Friday if they plan to implement similar policies as UHN. Mount Sinai Hospital said in a statement that it is strongly encouraging people to get vaccinated and that it recognizes other public health measures along with immunization, like mask wearing and physical distancing, are also crucial to stopping the spread.

William Osler Health System, which services Brampton and North Etobicoke, told the Star that as of June 7, all new employees must have at least one shot of the vaccine. It’s not currently mandatory for other staff, however.

The health system also said it implements strict safety measures for employees, including self-monitoring and self-screenings as well as emphasizing the “importance of vaccines.”

Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said it’s necessary for health-care institutions like hospitals to implement vaccination policies in the absence of federal and provincial mandates.

“Now there’s just only so long we can go without having policies in place in hospitals and other health-care settings to really encourage and nudge and shift people to ensure they are vaccinated and protecting people in the hospital and people outside the hospital,” he said.

Going into the fall, governments need to look to other countries and jurisdictions to see what policies have been created, and what has and hasn’t worked, said Boozary. Patchwork policies are problematic within a pandemic and there needs to be a clearer goal in order to avoid a fourth wave.

“Where we’ve not been effective as a health system is being able to draw lessons from other health systems to best protect and inform our own policies,” he said.

It’s time for leadership to step up implementing proof of immunization at the very least within a health-care setting, as this is a crucial period to prevent a further spread of infection with the Delta variant present, he explained.

“We know again just how precarious this can be, given what we’ve been through each wave,” he said. “We really can’t afford to be back of the line on this.”