TORONTO — A Toronto hospital where protesters denouncing COVID-19 measures rallied Monday afternoon said such demonstrations are demoralizing for health-care workers who have cared for patients infected with the virus despite the risk to themselves and their families.
The University Health Network, which runs Toronto General Hospital, made the comments in a statement ahead of a number of protests expected to take place at hospitals across Canada on Monday.
“Vaccinations offer the best chance of preventing hospitalizations, admissions to ICUs, and ventilations to preserve life,” the hospital network said.
“To see protests in front of hospitals is demoralizing for all who work here but particularly for the staff who have cared for the people dying of COVID-19, often without all of their family and loved ones around them.”
That sentiment was echoed by some doctors who stood outside the facility as a crowd of protesters gathered nearby.
Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said the event “feels like a moral gut punch” for those in a health-care system already grappling with burnout due to the pandemic.
“To block and intimidate people coming in for care, it just hits heavy at times,” Boozary said. “I think we just have to remind ourselves this is a very small vocal minority.”
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Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the hospital Monday afternoon, many of them condemning Ontario's proof-of-vaccination system, which is scheduled to take effect next week. Several police officers were also present.
An organization calling itself Canadian Frontline Nurses posted notices of “silent vigils” expected to take place in all 10 provinces, saying they're meant to critique public health measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Prospective locations also include the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre and the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
Organizers say they want to take a stand against what they call “tyrannical measures and government overreach,” adding that they are not encouraging nurses to walk out on their shifts or abandon patients.
Some high-ranking Ontario politicians and prominent health-care organizations have also issued warnings regarding the events.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose province was among those targeted by similar past protests after he announced plans for a proof-of-vaccine system, condemned the latest round on Sunday in a tweet describing such events as “selfish, cowardly and reckless.”
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and Ontario Medical Association issued a joint statement “strongly condemning” the planned disruptions and calling for designated safe zones around health-care facilities to protect staff and patients — a proposal the province's New Democrats have also floated.
“Nurses, doctors and other health-care workers have been working around the clock on the front lines of the pandemic for 18 months helping to keep our communities safe,” Sunday's joint statement reads. “These COVID-19 heroes need the resources and supports to continue the battle — now in the thick of a fourth wave. They cannot and must not be distracted, or worse, discouraged by protests at the doorsteps of their workplaces.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory also took to social media to condemn the protests planned for some city hospitals, adding he's been in contact with the local police chief about the events and received assurances that staff would be protected and patients could access the buildings.
“I support police in taking whatever action is necessary to protect the lives of innocent people seeking medical care and all of our health-care heroes,” Tory wrote on Twitter. “We have long passed the time when we can have this tyranny of a few interfere with access to health care during a pandemic.”
Some federal party leaders also addressed the planned demonstrations while out on the hustings.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau vowed to bring in legislation that would make it a crime to obstruct access to any building providing health care or to intimidate or threaten health-care workers carrying out their duties as well as any patient receiving that care.
“I am deeply disturbed by anti-vaxxer gatherings outside of hospitals and health care sites in the last few weeks,” Trudeau said in a statement Monday.
“These people are intimidating our health-care heroes and putting Canadians seeking health services at risk. I will not accept this.”
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said peaceful protest is one thing, harassing people accessing and working in health care is another.
“This type of harassment and protest in front of hospitals is completely unacceptable,” he said during a campaign event in Ottawa.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it is wrong to protest at hospitals.
“No health-care worker, no patient, no one seeking health care should in any way be limited or have a barrier to getting the care they need,” he said while campaigning in Sioux Lookout, Ont.
Past protests have centred on both public health measures and the prospect of proof-of-vaccination systems that would limit access to many public settings for those who have not been immunized against COVID-19.
British Columbia's system takes effect on Monday, while Ontario's is set to launch on Sept. 22.
Quebec's rolled out earlier this month, Manitoba began issuing vaccine cards in June, and both Nova Scotia and Yukon have said proof-of-vaccination systems are in the works.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.
— With files from Mia Rabson and Allison Jones