On Aug. 23, with the fourth wave of COVID-19 starting to build – and queues at vaccine clinics shrinking – the B.C. government announced plans to require vaccine passports to access restaurants and bars, sports events, theatres and gyms. Angry protests followed. But the policy has also driven a marked increase in vaccination rates.
While Alberta tried lotteries and $100 cash cards to entice vaccination holdouts, B.C. health officials, along with those in Ontario, Quebec and other provinces, calculated that it would take a tougher policy to boost rates. This week, after repeatedly ruling out such a policy, Alberta and Saskatchewan announced their own vaccine passport systems. And it seems Alberta is finally getting results.
More than anyone, it is young adults who have responded to B.C.’s passport program by booking their shots. The potential loss of social activities has proven to be a powerful tool of persuasion. In the three weeks since the policy was announced, more than 20,000 British Columbians between the ages of 18 and 24 have had their first shot of the vaccine – a significant jump in turnout from the trend over the summer. Just 351 individuals in that age group had registered for a vaccine the day before the announcement. The day after, registrations jumped to 2,030, and an average of 1,000 people have signed up every day for the past three weeks.
The vaccination rate for this cohort now is greater than the provincial average, and by next week, if the trend holds, 18-to-24-year-old British Columbians will be more likely to be vaccinated than the 65-to-69-year-olds who were offered the vaccine months ahead of them.
In contrast, Alberta’s incentive programs – starting with a lottery announced at the beginning of the summer and then, more recently, gift cards – have had little effect on boosting the province’s comparatively low vaccination rates. Provincial statistics show the lottery scheme did not prompt a wave of people to book appointments when it was announced in June, and the gift card announcement was followed by a noticeable but relatively small increase in bookings.
The day after Alberta reversed course this past Wednesday and announced a form of vaccine passport, bookings tripled to more than 25,000, Premier Jason Kenney said.
Maxwell Neck, a 22-year-old in Vancouver, got his first shot after the passport policy was announced in B.C. “I wasn’t exactly jumping out of my seat to go get it,” he said. “This forced my hand. ... You pretty much can’t go anywhere, do most things, without it.”
Every week, Mr. Neck meets his father for a pint of beer and chicken wings. On Tuesday, he showed his vaccine card for the first time, so that he could keep his weekly visit. “I feel it is fundamentally wrong to force people to do this. But now I have made my choice, and I’m moving on.”
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the vaccine passport was designed for all ages – but it is an especially important one for people in Mr. Neck’s age group.
“Younger people are more socially active and have seen high transmission rates compared to other groups. In that sense, this trend is very important,” he said in an interview. “While outcomes are obviously more serious amongst older people as a group, young people can, and do, get very ill.” There are 19 COVID-19 patients under the age of 40 in intensive care units in B.C. this week, he noted, and none of them are fully vaccinated.
As of Sept. 13, people who want access to a range of non-essential indoor services in B.C. must show proof of at least one dose of a vaccine, with a second shot required by Oct. 24. The digital or paper vaccine card is required at settings such as ticketed sports events, concerts, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, casinos, gyms and movie theatres. The program is meant to encourage higher vaccination rates, but also promises more certainty for those businesses because they can offer their patrons a safer environment, with less chance of the kinds of closures or restrictions that have been imposed at different times since the pandemic triggered a public health emergency in March, 2020.
The marquee outside the Rio Theatre in Vancouver reads: “No vaccine, no silver screen.” Corrine Lea, the independent theatre’s chief executive officer, says the passport system is good for business. “I see this as a way to help the arts survive, by having only vaccinated people attending,” she said.
The theatre survived a long stretch shuttered because the pandemic restrictions, but now is allowed to operate with limited seating capacity. “Our ticket sales are fantastic. We are seeing prepandemic numbers even with only half-capacity,” Ms. Lea said. “The path forward is obvious.”
Mr. Kenney abandoned his earlier opposition to vaccine passports in the face of a health-care system on the verge of overload because of a growing number of critically ill COVID-19 patients. The program, which will allow businesses to avoid restrictions if they opt in and agree to verify the vaccination status of their customers, will be in place beginning on Monday.
Alberta does not collect vaccine data using the same age cohorts as B.C., but among 20-to-24-year-olds, just 68.9 per cent have had at least their first shot. The province also has the lowest vaccination rates in Canada and has been unable to close the gap. Saskatchewan is second lowest.
“We’ve seen from other jurisdictions that proof of vaccinations do help encourage people to get vaccinated, and I am calling on every eligible Albertan to get fully immunized as soon as possible,” said Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
Scott Lear, a Simon Fraser University professor who studies how people make decisions about their health, said he is not surprised by the increase in vaccinations under B.C.’s passport program. Quebec saw a doubling of registrations when it announced its vaccine passport plan, he noted.
Alberta’s initial attempt to offer incentives was destined for failure, he said. “Those types of incentives, they don’t work very well for a lot of things. Usually the people who benefit were the ones who were going to get vaccinated anyway.”
Prof. Lear said B.C. has made mistakes as well, pointing to Premier John Horgan’s appeal to young adults last March to curtail their social activities: “Do not blow this for the rest of us,” Mr. Horgan said at the time. It was a shame and blame tactic that likely backfired, the professor said.
The passport system now being introduced in both provinces strikes a balance, both a carrot and a stick, he said. “It’s providing a meaningful reason to get vaccinated.”
The challenge ahead for both provinces, he added, is to reach the remaining vaccine-hesitant population. “It was always the case that the large majority would line up. Getting to 70-per-cent vaccination rates was never going to be a challenge. But we are going to need more resources and ingenuity to get higher levels now.”
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