The Ontario COVID-19 Science Table released a brief earlier this week setting out the case for some sort of home-use “vaccine certificate” system in Ontario: a type of proof of vaccination that is more stringent than receipts currently issued to people that could be used to exclude unvaccinated people from high-risk non-essential places, such as bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters.
There is one problem – one expressly conceded in the paper: The authors note that they cannot say with scientific confidence that such certificates would reduce the transmission of COVID-19 or increase the uptake of vaccination. It’s still a new pandemic, after all.
“You also have to remember that this is a new virus and the population coverage of these vaccines is also new,” says co-author Karen Born, assistant professor at the Institute. for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation from the University of Toronto. She acknowledges that the arguments for certificates – more commonly known as vaccine passports – cannot yet cite peer-reviewed literature to justify it, because they do not exist. But, she said, “just because there is no evidence to date does not mean that we cannot present this pragmatic case.”
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In the absence of rock-solid evidence, we can look to other provinces, like Quebec and Manitoba, and to other countries – Italy and France have announced plans to implement a system vaccine certificate.
But the most compelling case could be Israel, where the government relied on a form of vaccination certificate, the “Green Pass,” earlier this year to control access to certain non-essential locations while implementing complete vaccination of its population. The Green Pass was suspended on June 1. But on Thursday, faced with a higher rate of new cases, the government announced it would return, calling it a “soft suppression” policy.
(For those who insist that we must “learn to live with the virus”: this is exactly what Israel says such measures are at the service of: we are allowed to choose how we live, intelligently, with a new endemic virus.)
Although Israel has a higher share of its population fully vaccinated than either Canada or Ontario, it remains vulnerable to new waves of pandemics. While Ontario is currently experiencing a low number of cases and declining hospitalizations, it is not difficult to sketch how a resurgence of COVID-19 could occur here in the coming months: the province will likely enter all that will come after Stage 3 in August, and both public schools and post-secondary education will resume in September. Many employers will start recalling their workers to offices in the fall, and all of these things will lead to an increased spread of the disease.
Kieran Moore, the chief medical officer of health, said he expected another wave of infections in the fall. That’s part of why he’s repeatedly urging people to get vaccinated – to try to downplay the severity of a potential fourth wave.
Granted, vaccines mean cases are much less likely to turn into hospitalizations and death. But they haven’t changed a crucial thing: It only takes about 300 people in intensive care units across Ontario to start delaying hospital procedures, and we have only just started to widen the backlog of procedures that has accumulated over the past 18 months. There are over 4.5 million currently unvaccinated people in Ontario to date; nearly 275,000 of them are over 60, according to the province’s daily data release. COVID-19 could still throw a wrench into our hospital system if the spread is left unchecked.
And what would the government do if critical care cases were to start creeping north of 200 again in the fall and show no signs of slowing down? (Friday’s count is 136.) Another round of broad-spectrum blockades would overwhelmingly punish the vast majority of people who did the right thing and got shot. It would also rightly enrage companies that are just starting to win back customers after a brutal year. Born cites gyms as an example of the kind of business that could be saved by a vaccination certificate in the event of a fourth wave. Another example is cinemas, already plagued by what they call “arbitrary and unreasonable” restrictions.
“This could allow for faster reopening and also allow for increased capacity in those settings,” Born said. “We are looking for places where certificates should be used and also where they should not – low risk settings and essential settings.”
It does not make sense to let necessary medical care be postponed once again in this pandemic because we have not maximized our vaccination coverage, especially since a vaccination certificate could be put in place enough quickly – we know the province did the work to develop a digital pass before deciding to abandon the idea.
“It’s either, let’s shut down, shut down businesses and schools, or look at that kind of framework,” says Born. “The alternative is the closures we are all experiencing at this point.”
Not only has the government not implemented some rigorous proof of vaccination policy; nor did it clarify the legal rights of companies or employers to unvaccinated customers and employees, creating a fog of confusion that helps no one (except anti-vaccines).
Vaccine passes raise legitimate civil rights concerns, and they obviously need to be implemented with care and thoughtfulness; the science table brief contains important advice on how to proceed. When Premier Doug Ford says it is a constitutional right to be vaccinated or not, he is not wrong. But the freedom not to get vaccinated shouldn’t force the rest of us – or the province’s hospital system – to be held hostage by people’s refusals. And it’s hard to believe that a government that has forced corporate rhetoric to attack federal Liberals and banned union rhetoric for its own electoral advantage is making a sincere defense of Ontario Charter rights here. In any case, a vaccine certificate is arguably a less intrusive public health measure than larger blockages.
So this is the logic behind the calls for a vaccine passport: the government should not let a fourth wave delay needed medical care in our hospitals, and it should not again use the blunt instrument of the new blockages. . A vaccination certificate would give conservatives a smarter, more focused alternative – if they’re willing to use it.
Ford has so far made his position clear: he is not considering a vaccine passport. But events could very well press the issue by October, and then he and his cabinet would have a choice. As I think they will end up doing an about-face on this issue out of sheer necessity, it would be best if they did as soon as possible.