TORONTO — A paid sick-leave program is coming to Ontario within days, the province said Wednesday as critics accused the government of endangering essential workers by delaying action on the issue for months.
Public health experts, labour groups and local officials have been calling for sick-leave support for much of the pandemic, arguing it would reduce COVID-19 spread in workplaces.
After months of saying a provincial plan would needlessly overlap with a federal measure, the Progressive Conservatives said they'd introduce a policy that would fill "gaps" in Ottawa's benefit, including reducing wait times for funds, expanding eligibility, and providing time off to get vaccinated.
House Leader Paul Calandra said the province had been hoping the federal Liberals would announce those changes in its budget earlier this week.
"It's important for us that we get this out as soon as possible in light of the disappointment Monday," he said. "But we're going to get it right, and over the next number of days, you'll see us come forward with something."
The shift in the province's approach on sick leave came after Premier Doug Ford's government rejected Opposition motions on paid sick leave earlier this week.
Calandra said the third wave, which has been pummeling Ontario, underscored the need to act.
Hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care for COVID-19 have been surging across the province in recent weeks, with doctors noting that essential workers are often among the most serious cases.
There were 788 patients with COVID-related critical illness in intensive care units as of midnight on Wednesday, according to a daily report from Critical Care Services Ontario.
Hospitals have ramped down non-urgent procedures and have been transferring patients between facilities to manage an onslaught of severe infections.
The Ornge air and land ambulance service, which is tracking transfers, said 570 patients were moved between hospitals from April 1 to Wednesday. Since Jan. 1, a total of 1,238 patients have been transferred between facilities, it said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should have acted earlier on sick leave and the provincial program needs to be easy for all workers to access.
"They should have done this a year ago," she said. "How many people lost their lives because the government has been dragged kicking and screaming to a point where they may have to actually act?"
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the delayed action is evidence that Ford is not fit to lead the province.
"His dithering and delaying on paid sick leave, and virtually every other public health measure, is why he needs to resign," Del Duca said.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it has offered advice to the government on the sick-day program, suggesting it should be temporary and not impose new costs on businesses.
"If an employer is required to pay for immediate pandemic sick time for those testing positive, (governments) should set up a quick process to reimburse the employer – at minimum, small employers," president Dan Kelly said on Twitter.
Ford was in self-isolation Wednesday after a member of his staff tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday night.
The premier has tested negative for the virus, his office said, but had come into contact with the staffer on Monday.
Ford's office also said neither Ontario's top doctor nor any member of cabinet came into contact with the individual diagnosed with the virus.
"The premier will continue leading this government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic while in isolation, including briefings with officials and communicating with the public," his office said.
Ontario reported 4,212 new cases of COVID-19 and 32 more deaths linked to the virus on Wednesday. The Ministry of Health also said 2,335 people are in hospital with the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie called on Ford to reopen some outdoor recreational facilities his government closed last week.
She thanked him for back-tracking on the closure of playgrounds but added that re-opening golf courses and tennis courts is also important.
"Outdoor recreation is essential to the overall health and well being of children and their families," she said. "But it's also essential to adults."
Ontario’s science advisors have criticized the restrictions on outdoor activities and said they will harm children and those who don't have access to their own green space.
In a different statement, the same advisory group called for a clear strategy to manage the supply of an in-demand drug used for COVID-19 patients.
Anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab is shown to improve patients’ likelihood of survival and to reduce their need for mechanical ventilation. Research on its effectiveness has driven global demand in recent months.
A brief published Monday by the COVID-19 science advisory table said demand for the drug in Ontario "might exceed supply in the near future," and laid out several options for managing supply, including limiting the dose to 400 milligrams per patient and potentially substituting another drug.
The group also suggested setting up a provincial dashboard to monitor and allocate supply based on demand. It said a centralized allocation lottery system could help ensure fairness if demand exceeds supply.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press