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Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, on June 18, 2021.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

This week, Seneca College became the first. The Toronto-area public college, which prior to the pandemic had 30,000 full-time students annually and 60,000 part-time registrants, announced that students and staff must be fully vaccinated if they want to be on campus this fall.

Don’t want to get two jabs? Don’t come to school.

A growing number of American institutions, including Harvard, Yale and the entire University of California system, have already taken the same step, and Canada’s institutions of learning should have the courage to do likewise. Better yet, provincial governments should tackle the issue, by ordering colleges, universities and school boards to make vaccination mandatory for in-person learning.

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And while they’re at it, provinces should of course also make vaccination mandatory for employment in sectors with the most at-risk people – namely long-term care, retirement homes and health care generally.

Think of it like smoking. Cigarettes are legal. Smoking may be a bad choice, but it is a choice. However, no one has the right to impose the health consequences of that choice on others. That’s why you can’t light up at the mall, or in a restaurant, or at work, or in a classroom.

That was once a far-out notion; as recently as the 1980s, Globe and Mail editorial board meetings featured overflowing ashtrays and clouds of smoke. Things changed, and for the better. In the long progress of liberal ideas about freedom and liberty, we find no evidence of a human right to make others sick, against their will. Sign up for Intro to Political Philosophy, and let us know if you hear otherwise.

But don’t attend that 500-person first-year lecture if you aren’t vaccinated, because that’s going to be a problem. Large numbers of people getting together, in close quarters, indoors, is a proven recipe for mass propagation of the pandemic.

It’s true that, at least during earlier waves of earlier variants, most young people tended to not get particularly sick. Severe illness and death from COVID-19 have, so far, been concentrated among older adults and seniors. That said, not enough is known about the long-term effects of this evolving virus. It’s a communicable disease that nobody of any age should want to catch, if they can avoid it.

And aside from the uncertain effect of COVID-19 on every 19-year-old who contracts it, there’s a somewhat more certain effect on others – parents, relatives, the barista at the coffee shop, and so on. Young adults are the most social age group, and that’s a good and normal thing. It’s just not a great thing in a pandemic, particularly if they and others are unvaccinated.

The good news is that the vast majority of us are eager to get vaccinated. More than 78 per cent of Canadians 12 years of age and older have had their first shot; the second-shot share is now more than 50 per cent, and climbing by more than a percentage point a day. By the end of this month, Canada should be at about 80 per cent of eligible people with a first shot, and nearly as many with a second shot.

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This country has delivered a remarkable performance. Unfortunately, it’s still not quite good enough.

If current trends hold, about 20 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and over – and a higher percentage of youth and the middle-aged – will still be entirely unvaccinated at the start of August. Absent some sharp nudges, that figure will not change much in the months to come. In most provinces, the percentage of people with at least a first shot is climbing by only a percentage point a week or less, and slowing.

To the south of us, our neighbours are running a real-time demonstration of what happens when variants meet the unvaccinated.

What happens is Nevada. With 46 per cent of its eligible population unvaccinated, the state is nevertheless fully reopened – and charging into its fifth wave. Today, Nevada has relatively more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than Ontario did back in April, at the vertiginous peak of the worst of its pandemic.

It’s a similar story in Missouri, which is even less vaccinated. As of July 10, it had nearly 1,200 people in hospital with COVID-19. That’s more than twice as many as are currently hospitalized in all of Canada, despite Missouri having fewer people than the Greater Toronto Area.

These are cautionary tales. Canada should learn from them, and act accordingly.

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