Minutes after Mayor John Tory announced Toronto would extend the city’s mandatory vaccinations deadline from Friday to Tuesday, thousands of parents flocked to the city’s vaccination clinics Wednesday and sought to confirm that their children had been vaccinated.
Most had reason to be concerned: about 5,600 City of Toronto employees have been included in a preliminary list released by the mayor Thursday of those who would be suspended. Staff at the city’s health unit confirmed that only about 2,300 children who were required to be vaccinated by Friday were receiving the required shots by Wednesday evening.
City employees include taxi drivers, homeless shelter staff, maintenance workers, janitors and even a few firefighters. Most had all of their vaccinations, and were not looking for new immunizations, health officials said. Many would work on weekend shifts, or were required to attend work at other cities, such as Ottawa or Ottawa, Ontario.
Most adult workers have had all of their required vaccinations and were not looking for new immunizations. City staff members require vaccinations, such as flu shots and vaccinations for measles and mumps, annually, and most are immunized at least once a year.
The Toronto Health Department does not know exactly why so many workers came forward on Wednesday, or how many had waited until the last minute. It said about 12,000 children were not vaccinated by Friday and could be, and as many as 25,000 could be. But it will not have a more precise estimate until Friday.
John Tory, the city’s mayor, criticized parents who were late getting their children immunized, and said city workers had not been told to vaccinate children. “Obviously, as a health officer, it is unacceptable to see people working in places of public trust come into the health unit and not be immunized,” he said in a press conference Thursday.
Many parents said they were angry that Toronto health officials had not notified them earlier that this could happen.
“Parents of those who had gotten the required vaccinations and were now not going to vaccinate, they were in, and mothers and fathers coming in holding hands, so they don’t look like they are angry,” said Dr. Gregory Taylor, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
As a result of the lack of notifications, it appears that fewer than 1,300 employees are facing possible disciplinary actions, said Deirdre McNeill, a member of the board of directors for Toronto Autism Coalition. “Toronto parents are beyond outraged,” she said.
The health board that oversees Toronto’s health unit has asked Dr. Eileen de Villa, the medical officer of health, to provide an assessment of her department’s handling of the situation. A spokesman for the board declined to give details on what disciplinary actions the employees could face.
The decision to make the vaccine deadlines voluntary in the past has created controversy. For example, the city refused to make them mandatory in a 2017 agreement between itself and province. Instead, the city’s decision decided what vaccinations people needed and where they could go for them.
Of the more than 4 million people who live in Toronto, about 147,000 have autism, and an additional 265,000 have been diagnosed with one or more conditions that can cause autism. Toronto did not have a vaccine registry prior to 2013.
The Toronto Autism Coalition filed a complaint against the health board that was upheld last year. Now, the city board has to comply with that decision.
Tory appeared before his press conference Thursday to apologize and ask for more empathy from his critics. He also acknowledged there was much more work to do when it comes to getting Toronto residents vaccinated. He reminded city workers that their work had saved lives.
“We made mistakes by not mailing out more information to the employees,” he said. “We apologize for that. We’ve fixed that. We’ve now sent out more information to the employees and we should have done it sooner. We’re going to make sure that all employees know there will be consequences for not vaccinating.”