Ontario is the latest province to reject the idea of a domestic COVID-19 vaccine passport while other provinces support such a document, forcing some institutions and businesses to make their own rules.
Seneca College in Toronto will require both students and faculty to be fully immunized in order to be invited back to campus in the fall, becoming the first postsecondary institution in Canada to make in-person attendance contingent on full inoculation.
Different provinces are now taking varying approaches to immunization, creating another hurdle in Canada’s pandemic response that has seen provinces institute divergent rules and restrictions. Manitoba has been issuing proof-of-immunization cards to residents since June, allowing residents to skip the province’s interprovincial quarantine travel rules and allowing them more visitation rights in hospitals and long-term care homes. Quebec announced last week it will use vaccine passports starting in September, but only in communities or non-essential sectors experiencing outbreaks, such as gyms, bars and spectator events. If cases in the province remain low, the passports will not be required.
Alberta and Saskatchewan, however, have turned down the idea of a vaccine passport, citing privacy laws, and B.C. Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry have both said they aren’t supportive of such passports to access services.
Internationally, France has seen a surge in vaccine appointments after making inoculation mandatory for health care workers by September and mandating special COVID-19 passes for fully vaccinated people or those with a negative test to be able to go to restaurants, malls and cultural events.
On Tuesday, the Toronto Region Board of Trade called on the Ontario government to introduce a vaccine passport system for non-essential businesses, arguing it should be used as a tool to keep businesses open if cases begin to rise.
But Ontario’s top doctor said the province won’t bring in its own passport system at this time. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said the current adult vaccination rate of 79 per cent for one dose and 57 per cent for two doses is “remarkable,” though he expressed concerns about the Delta variant. Dr. Moore added he would like to see the vaccine rates go even higher as the province expects a rise in COVID-19 cases in September as colder weather arrives and indoor activities resume. The province has set a bar of 80 per cent for first doses and 75 per cent for second doses in order to lift remaining restrictions.
“A passport for within Ontario has not been contemplated by this government,” Dr. Moore said. “The vision of this government has been to have the highest immunization rate possible through non-mandatory means … I don’t think it’s necessary at this point given that Ontarians are coming forward and getting immunized at such a great rate.”
Carly Luis, director of communications for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the government “has been clear that the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandated for Ontarians, but we do strongly suggest that people embrace the opportunity.” Ms. Luis said Ontarians have the ability to download or print an electronic COVID-19 vaccine receipt through the provincial portal “should proof of vaccination be required in a certain setting.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday he will work with the provinces on an international vaccination passport but will leave domestic decisions up to provincial governments.
“Different provinces will be doing different things. Where the federal government has a role to play and where we are looking is in terms of vaccine certification for international travel,” Mr. Trudeau said, appearing at a virtual event alongside Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin announcing an agreement on affordable child care.
“Certainly, the federal government will be working with the provinces to ensure that there is an internationally accepted proof of vaccination that will allow Canadians to travel freely in the coming years.”
Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and assistant professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Western Ontario who sits on the province’s vaccine distribution task force, called a provincial vaccine pass a “blunt instrument” that might not work in all settings.
He pointed to Israel, which implemented a “green pass” policy early on in the pandemic, but has already stopped using it, with some suggesting there was no evidence that it was working.
He said it could be helpful for the government to be more heavy-handed regarding such passports for post-secondary institutions, however. “It would be great if the Ministry of Colleges and Universities were the ones to implement these things that applies to all institutions in that category … at least to have some consistency in those institutions.”
Seneca College, which has 90,000 students at campuses in Toronto, York Region and Peterborough, Ont., follows in the footsteps of many elite universities in the United States, as well as the public education systems in New York and California, which require students receive both vaccine doses for in-person learning. In Canada, while several schools in Ontario require that students be vaccinated to live in residence, none other than Seneca has announced plans to make inoculations mandatory to attend in-person classes.
“This pandemic is not over and we want to protect our students and staff … it’s that simple,” said Seneca College president David Agnew, adding that the college expects 10,000 students to attend in-person classes in the fall semester. “Now with vaccines generally available, it’s the right, logical, consistent thing to do.”
With reports from Les Perreaux in Montreal and Mike Hager in Vancouver
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