TORONTO -- Workers at long-term care homes who chose not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine will soon have to participate in an educational program on the benefits of vaccination, unless they can provide proof of a medical reason for refusing the shot.

The Doug Ford government has announced that all 626 long-term care homes in Ontario will have to have immunization polices in place for staff that will, at a minimum, require workers who do not get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to “participate in an educational program about the benefits of vaccination and the risks of not being vaccinated.

The policy takes effect July 1 and the only exception will be for staff who can provide a “documented medical reason for not being vaccinated,” the province say.

“Widespread vaccination within long-term care homes is the best way to protect residents, staff and their families,” Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said in a press release. “We want to build on the success of our long-term care vaccination campaign to date. That’s why we’re leading the way with new measures to promote full immunization among long-term care staff.”

About 88 per cent of long-term care home workers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine though only 66 per cent are fully immunized. That lags significantly behind the vaccination rate among residents, 97 per cent of whom are now fully immunized.

The Ford government says that by requiring homes to have immunization policies for staff and setting minimum standards around those policies, it hopes to encourage more workers to get vaccinated which will in turn allow for “additional easing of restrictions in homes and more opportunities for residents to enjoy activities that support their wellbeing and quality of life.”

A total of 3,950 long-term care residents have died since the start of the pandemic, though the vast majority of those fatalities were in the first two waves before the widespread vaccination of residents and staff.

In a statement attached to the press release, the Ontario Long-Term Care Association said that the “vast majority of long-term care staff have embraced vaccination to protect their residents.” But they acknowledged that for those who are reluctant and who do not have a medical issue “a mandatory education program will be helpful to correct misinformation and alleviate their concerns."