TORONTO -- Ontario will now make it mandatory for long-term care staff, support workers and volunteers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-November.

Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips made the announcement Friday afternoon at Queen’s Park, saying that vaccination rates in many homes are not high enough considering the risk of the Delta variant.

“Currently, 367 of the 626 homes have staff immunization levels below 90 per cent,” Phillips said. “More concerningly, 99 homes have a rate below 80 per cent.”

“We want to protect all long-term care residents and all staff regardless of which home they live or work in and the evidence shows in long-term care settings, these rates are not acceptable

Phillips also noted that one home had a vaccination rate that was under 40 per cent.

Staff, support workers, students and volunteers will have until Nov. 15 to show proof they have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine or a valid medical exemption. If they do not, they will not be able to enter the facility.

Phillips said that as the province does not employ long-term care staff, the decision on each worker’s employment status will be up to the operator of the home.

Newly hired staff will be required to be fully vaccinated before they begin working, unless they have a valid medical exemption.

Other individuals, such as visitors or caregivers who are not required by law to be vaccinated, will still be regularly tested for COVID-19. Homes will also begin randomly testing fully-vaccinated individuals, including caregivers and visitors, to help detect possible breakthrough cases.

“If you're one of the staff, who has not yet gotten vaccinated, I ask you to please go and book your first shot,” Phillips urged. “Please make the choice to protect yourself, your co-workers and the residents that depend on you every day.”

Phillips did not appear to be too concerned about how this new policy could impact staffing at long-term care centres, saying that most homes do have good coverage in terms of vaccination rates. He said that the province’s Mobile Enhancement and Support Teams can be deployed in instances of shortages and that 11,000 personal support workers are expected to graduate in the coming months.

“We are looking at all of those those resources. We're working directly with the homes.”

The announcement comes a week after the province committed to posting vaccination rates at individual homes, but would not commit to mandatory vaccinations.

Phillips had refused to commit to mandating vaccines for workers as recently as last week when he announced a plan to publicize the vaccination rates at individual homes.

“We got the best success so far in the province with the steps we're taking but, but we're going to do what we need to do,” he said at the time.

As of Oct. 1, there are 19 long-term care homes in Ontario with active COVID-19 outbreaks.

Phillips noted that data indicates unvaccinated staff are a “significant cause” of outbreaks at long-term care homes.

“This will be difficult for those who make a choice not to become vaccinated. But the reality is that our residents they don't have a choice about where they are going to live. This is their home and we have to make sure that they are protected and we have to make sure that all of those other staff are protected as well,” he said.

Long-term care advocate Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos said that she is “very happy” with the policy despite the “holes,” such as the fact that the mandate does not extend to homecare or hospital workers.

“I’m breathing a little bit easier today,” she said. “I’ve always come from the position that if you—you know it’s one thing being vaccine hesitant and then becoming knowledgeable on the issue and changing your mind, but if you are that anti-Vax sentiment, conspiratorial thinking, I simply do not think you should be working in healthcare and I stand by the position.”

Unvaccinated personal support workers will still be able to work in other health-care settings, Phillips confirmed on Friday, saying that this policy applies to long-term care only.