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Province should accept help from Red Cross, think tank president says

Charles Cirtwell from the Northern Policy Institute also says all elementary and middle schools could stay online until the faculty and staff at each school are fully vaccinated
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Charles Cirtwill, President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute

Out of the ashes of Friday the 16, came the decision to expand eligibility for the AstraZeneca vaccine to 40-year-olds in Ontario. It was a good decision. Now, what’s next?

We already have the answer in hand. The Ontario government’s existing vaccine roll-out strategy. We are in stage two of that plan. It shifts us from a focus on age groupings to a focus on essential workers.

This change makes sense. Our priority had to be those who are more likely to die if they catch COVID. Our next priority obviously should be those who, being essential, have no choice but to expose themselves to COVID.

What does that mean for announcements Premier Ford and Health Minister Elliot should be making in the hours and days ahead? Simple, stick to their plan, but move faster in the switch from age to essential.

Committing 25 per cent of all vaccines to essential workers was one of the good announcements made on that fateful Friday. Double down on it. Effective say, May 15 (to allow for current age-based appointments to be fulfilled), 90 per cent of all Moderna and Pfizer doses could be committed to essential workers.

Starting with early childhood educators, then elementary and middle school teachers and staff, then the rest of our essential workforce. This would leave AstraZeneca (and potentially Johnson & Johnson) for ongoing age and underlying condition-based vaccinations. Plus 10 per cent of Moderna and Pfizer for situations where Astra is not a good fit.

To expedite that, accept the help of the Red Cross. Send those new mobile teams to every daycare, elementary and middle school in our hotspots. Then move on to the larger employers and then to other essential workplaces. Set up in the parking lot and stay there until the vaccines are gone or all the staff are vaccinated. Across the province existing mobile teams should be redirected to the same task.

The provincial government could also put in place the same permissions to be absent from work, with pay, for the purpose of vaccination as we have for provincial elections. Three clear hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. would do nicely.

Increasing the rate of vaccination will exhaust the available supply of vaccine more quickly. Vaccination efforts may have to be fully or partially halted if that occurs.  This is an acceptable risk if it means more targeted vaccinations more quickly.

Yes, Moderna shipments will be light this month. AstraZeneca is also reducing shipments in the short term. That is a challenge for the federal government to address. They have already taken steps to do so. Results are promised in June and July. The province should focus on its job. Getting every available vaccine into the right arm as fast as possible. 

Speaking of the federal government, the province has now indicated it will be stepping in to fill gaps left by the federal emergency sick benefit program that was created last year. Disappointing, yes. The federal government is better positioned to solve this problem and can do so more quickly. If the feds won’t do it, however, then yes, the province should. Temporarily. Here is how.

Local health regions have the authority to close businesses that are experiencing outbreaks (as Peel Region just has). The province should make emergency sick leave benefits available immediately to any employee of a business shuttered by one of these orders. The federal program is still there and can help most everyone else, there is no need for competing benefits and more administrative confusion.

Better still, tying the regional closure orders to a provincial emergency sick leave benefit would encourage their use by other local authorities. Local authorities who are meant to use their local knowledge to better target interventions. That said, any workplace that is issued a third such local closure order should be placed immediately on the non-essential non-opening list and their employees handed off to other existing, long term federal income supports.

Let’s not forget playgrounds though. Ontarians should not be off the hook. If another family is on the slide, or the swing, or at the picnic table - stay away. Also, quit going out for anything non-essential, including work that could be done from home. Non-essential workplaces close at 8. If you are wandering around after that, you might want to reconsider if where you are going really is essential.  

Finally, looking at the province’s own data, schools do not appear to be safe. We can improve that by vaccination and remote delivery. All elementary and middle schools could stay online until the faculty and staff at each school are fully vaccinated. Senior schools could remain online for the rest of this school year. Constant policy changes are needlessly raising the anxiety of every Ontarian. The province has a plan, let’s stick to it.

- Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank based in Northern Ontario with offices in Thunder Bay and Sudbury.

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