Vancouver Coastal Health’s top doctor advised in mid-February that vaccine mandates, passports and segregated lockdowns may cause more harm than good, correspondence to the president of the University of British Columbia shows.
The position by Chief Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly contrasts with provincial public-health policies that have kept many mask and vaccine requirements in place for the Omicron wave of the pandemic.
On Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry is expected to announce whether mask requirements and vaccine passes are still required for public safety across B.C.
But in a briefing on March 1, Dr. Henry resisted pressure to follow the lead of other provinces to roll back those pandemic safety requirements. “There are still many, many areas that have significant transmission and we are still seeing widespread transmission of this virus across the province, which is why the protections we have in place right now remain a necessary part of our strategy for now,” she told reporters then.
The Feb. 16 letter from Vancouver Coastal Health to Santa Ono, president of UBC, urged the university to drop its plan to deregister students who have refused to declare their COVID-19 vaccination status. Dr. Daly’s letter cited a study that was not peer-reviewed as key evidence that the policy would be ineffective.
In her letter to UBC’s president, Dr. Daly argued that vaccines are not effective at preventing infection or transmission of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. “Therefore there is now no material difference in likelihood that a UBC student or staff member who is vaccinated or unvaccinated may be infected and potentially infectious to others,” she wrote.
She also took aim at the university’s requirement for weekly rapid antigen testing of unvaccinated students and staff, which had been in place since last September.
The letter, signed by the health authority’s four medical health officers, quotes from an analysis on the online Social Science Research Network about the potential harms of mandatory vaccine policies.
The study, titled The Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Vaccine Policy: Why Mandates, Passports and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause More Harm Than Good, was in preprint, meaning it had not been formally peer reviewed. The study concludes that vaccine mandates may discourage uptake of future health measures. “Restricting people’s access to work, education, public transport, and social life based on COVID-19 vaccination status impinges on human rights, promotes stigma and social polarization, and adversely affects health and well-being,” it says.
Dr. Daly concluded that universities are low-risk settings for COVID-19 and therefore should have minimal restrictions in place at this stage of the pandemic, to avoid “profound negative harms” on unvaccinated students who faced sanctions. She was not available for comment.
Caroline Colijn, a professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University and Canada 150 Research Chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health, said there is solid evidence indicating that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are less effective in preventing transmission of the Omicron variant than previous variants.
However, she said she would not rely on a preprint study, and she is not aware of any peer-reviewed research that demonstrates that the mandates are causing more harm than good. “I don’t know of any kind of publicly available data that the public can use to think about balancing the harms and the benefits.”
Twelve days after Dr. Daly’s letter to the university, UBC declared it would drop both its rapid testing program and its plan to deregister students who have not complied with its vaccine requirements.
“The evolution of the virus and the presence of the Omicron variant now indicates that a different public-health and safety approach should be taken,” states the bulletin, posted for faculty, staff and students in Vancouver and the Okanagan. The university also took advice from its COVID modelling team that concluded in a Feb. 20 letter: “There is no longer a strong scientific reason to differentially treat those who were fully vaccinated months ago and those who are unvaccinated, in terms of the risks that they pose for transmitting COVID to others.”
Matthew Ramsey, a spokesperson for the university, said the policy changes were made “after extensive discussion within UBC and through careful consideration of available data.”
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