By Jack Hauen, Sneh Duggal and Jessica Smith Cross
Premier Doug Ford announced a temporary pay bump for personal support workers on Thursday an in effort to retain them through the second wave of COVID-19.
PSWs providing publicly-funded services in long-term care, home care and those providing direct care in the children, community and social services sector will receive an additional $3 an hour, while PSWs at hospitals, where pay is generally higher, will receive an additional $2 an hour. The boost is effective immediately and Ford said it will be in place until at least March.
While opposition MPPs called on the raise to be permanent, the premier suggested that could be in the cards, saying, "when it comes around to March, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure this is full time."
"They deserve it. Hard-working folks. I have your backs."
The wage enhancement follows the temporary pandemic pay program, which was jointly funded by the federal and provincial governments, and gave frontline workers, including PSWs, an extra $4-per-hour and from April 24 to August 13.
It will cost the government $461 million and will go to an estimated 147,000 PSWs.
So far, the Ford government has not acted on a report it received recommending the government increase the amount of hands-on care residents receive.
The Ford government has also recently announced an accelerated training program and a one-time $5,000 bonus to some recent PSW grads if they go to work in long-term care or home care for six months.
Ford also mentioned travel expenses. Workers in the home-care sector in particular have long travel times between clients for which they aren't paid. He recollected that a worker named Sally took the bus to care for his mother — and said something should be done about that — but made no such announcement Thursday.
The NDP accused Ford of trying to save money by delaying the wage increase, leaving long-term care homes understaffed.
“How dare Doug Ford call PSWs heroes, then deny them even a decent wage for their work,” said leader Andrea Horwath in a press release. “How dare he call them heroes, then force them to keep working three jobs to make ends meet.
“PSWs are run off their feet, doing incredibly challenging work. Their jobs take a massive physical, mental and emotional toll. They deserve a permanent wage increase, full-time jobs, and benefits. And the people they care for deserve for them to have that stability, too. All essential workers deserve pandemic pay during the second wave – no exceptions — and for the sake of our loved ones in care and for generations to come, all PSWs should have decent, well-paying jobs.”
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said the temporary increase isn't enough to retain and attract PSWs and noted the announcement did nothing to improve the standard of care in long-term care homes or the quality of food.
"People cannot plan their lives around a temporary wage increase that is at least a dollar per hour less than the pandemic pay some received earlier this year," he said in a press release.
"Doug Ford is months late and a dollar an hour short. He should have announced a permanent wage increase for all PSWs in the system — he didn’t get it done."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner called for the increase to be made permanent, and for PSWs to be guaranteed full-time hours at one facility.
"We cannot fully protect our elders until we start respecting those who care for them."
Metrics for another lockdown
Though Ford said more restrictions on restaurants are not immediately incoming, the province will be looking at a number of factors to determine future actions, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said.
"Not right now. Again, everything's on the table," Ford said when asked if restaurants should fear new lockdown measures.
Provincial experts are always tracking things like new cases per day, hospital capacity, the reproduction number, and coordinating with local public health units about their data, Elliott and Williams said.
Ford said restaurants are doing a great job following public health measures, saying that new cases linked to those businesses are mostly in staff, not patrons.
Earlier, Stan Cho, the parliamentary assistant to Finance Minister Rod Phillips, said there are "differing opinions" and a "healthy debate" in cabinet about further lockdown measures.
"Those are heated discussions we're having," he said, though he added that Ford is listening to everyone committed to taking action based on the advice of his medical experts.
Screening for schools and child care
The government is changing its screening guidance for kids attending school and daycare after criticism that symptoms like having a runny nose were too common to mandate that kids get a COVID-19 test.
The screening now consists of two sets of questions. If kids have symptoms under the first list, which includes things like fever and cough, they're advised to stay home and isolate, then contact their doctor to see if they should get a test.
The second set of questions asks about more common symptoms, like a runny nose or headache. Children with just one of these symptoms are advised to stay home for 24 hours, after which they can return to school or child care if their symptoms are improving. If they have two or more, they should isolate and seek advice from their doctor about getting a test.
"Based on a review of the current evidence and consulting with pediatric infectious diseases experts, we are updating the list of symptoms in the COVID-19 screening tool for schools and child care to ensure that our children receive the education and care that they need while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission," Williams said in a release.
The symptom list also no longer includes abdominal pain or conjunctivitis (pink eye).
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, associate chief medical officer of health, said symptoms like a runny nose can be due to another illness or condition that a child has.
"Just doing a test on its own is not going to necessarily help the situation," she said, adding that parents and primary care providers know best when it comes to a child's health history.
She said schools and daycares should not be requiring a negative COVID-19 test, "in fact they shouldn’t even require a doctor’s note." This is a message she said officials are working on "clarifying."
The remarks caused some confusion on Twitter as many parents have stood in long testing lines in recent days to get their children tested so they could send them back to school or daycare. The premier's executive director of communications joined in on the conversation, stating that "he's not sure what's so shocking here."
Not sure what's so shocking here. If you child is feeling ill, talk to your primary care provider. If they say there's no concern, you go back to school. Why would we insist on every child with a runny nose or chills to have a doctor's note? https://t.co/wzVcyTs2Tu
— Travis Kann (@traviskann) October 1, 2020
Ford defended his government's moves on COVID-19 testing as the province faces a backlog of over 80,000 cases.
"Keep in mind that if I would have just sat back and stuck with 20,000 tests we wouldn't have this problem," he said, again urging Ontarians not to get tested if they're not showing symptoms of the virus.
Elliott said the government is aware the issue is urgent and is doing its best to increase lab capacity.
Ford said the province is also in need of lab technicians.
"I wish I could turn on a switch and all of a sudden lab technicians come rolling in," he said, giving a shoutout to Western, Guelph and McMaster Universities, who have offered to help out with the problem.
Yaffe said the testing backlog is "definitely affecting (contact tracing) in a negative way."
It can take some time before a person who is ill gets tested, she said, adding that then there is the turnaround time for the test to be processed. By the time contacts are reached, they could have already spread the virus to others, Yaffe said.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, who is co-ordinating the province's outbreak response, said Huyer said contact tracing is important when it comes to outbreaks as they need to be managed "as quickly as possible."
Huyer shared some details about outbreaks at a media briefing on Thursday.
The province has identified 108 outbreaks over the past seven days and 178 during the last 14. This compares to 75 outbreaks during the two weeks prior.
"The numbers mean that each day as we move forward we’re seeing more and more outbreaks, so increasing number and increasing range of outbreaks, with notable observation of those in the vulnerable sector," said Huyer, adding that this includes long-term care and retirement homes.
He pointed to areas with high case numbers such as Toronto and its surrounding areas and Ottawa, saying there have been an increasing number of outbreaks in a variety of settings.
In Toronto, for example, there were 49 outbreaks between Sept. 20-30 — 19, or 39 per cent, were in bars or restaurants. He said about 15 per cent of the staff work in two places including multiple restaurants or in other sectors as well.
"Those are all concerns and some examples of challenges that we’re seeing," he said.
Yaffe added that health units are also finding that the number of contacts of people testing positive for COVID-19 is "much higher" than in the first wave.
"This increases the complexity of the case, contact and outbreak investigations quite a lot, and it's clear really that people have let their guard down when it comes to following basic public health measures," she said.
Ford promised that he'd ask grocery executives about coordinating discounts, so shoppers don't go from store to store, potentially spreading the virus, looking for the best deals.
"I guess in a free market society everyone's going at each other, and I think competition is good, but it'd make life a lot easier" if they'd coordinate some prices, he said.