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Some jurisdictions are considering relaxing pandemic measures for people who are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Is Canada warming up to “vaccine passports”?

Update: The federal government said on June 9 it is aiming to lift some pandemic travel restrictions for Canadians who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, starting as early as July.

Depending on vaccination rates and trends in new infections, Canadians who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to self-isolate for 14 days or stay in quarantine hotels when they return from travel abroad.

The government will consider people to be fully vaccinated if they have completed a full course of the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines at least 14 days before arrival in Canada. It’s not clear what specific documentation the federal government will accept as proof of vaccination or how this applies to people who received different vaccine products for their first and second shots.

Fully vaccinated foreign travellers will still have to show a negative test for COVID-19 before boarding flights to Canada, and take another test upon arrival and self-isolate until the results come back negative.

Meanwhile, Manitoba’s government announced it would allow people who are fully vaccinated to travel within Canada without having to quarantine when they return to the province. Unvaccinated children under age 12 who are travelling with fully vaccinated adults will be exempt from quarantine requirements, too.

Fully vaccinated Manitobans will also face fewer restrictions on visiting loved ones in hospitals and care homes, and will not have to isolate if they are in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

The province will issue digital and paper vaccine cards with a person’s name and a QR code that can be scanned to confirm their vaccination status. No other personal information will be listed on the card.

According to Manitoba officials, the policy is intended to encourage vaccination among people who are hesitant, and they may ease more pandemic restrictions for people who are vaccinated as the province reopens. Quebec officials said they are considering similar policies.

As yet, it’s unclear whether Manitoba will provide any special accommodations or appeal mechanisms for people who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.

As COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up across Canada, the idea of easing some pandemic restrictions based on immunity or vaccination status appears to be gaining traction.

A recent Leger poll of 1,529 Canadians found that 61% agreed that governments should implement “vaccine passports” or proof of immunization policies allowing people who are vaccinated to attend public events and gatherings. Up to three in five also believed certain businesses such as spas and gyms have a right to require proof of vaccination.

Another poll found that more than three-quarters of Canadians surveyed support requiring proof of vaccination for anyone boarding a commercial flight.

Earlier this year, such policies seemed “pretty unworkable,” according to clinical ethicist Eric Wasylenko. It’s still not clear how long immunity lasts after vaccination or infection. And immunization researcher Shannon MacDonald noted that many jurisdictions are poorly equipped to share vaccination records.

No Canadian jurisdiction has indicated that they will mandate vaccination against COVID-19. And when Ontario’s health minister suggested in December that people who refuse vaccinations may face “some restrictions” on travel and access to communal spaces, most other provinces and territories dismissed the idea.

But now, the political tide appears to be turning. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who initially panned vaccine passports as potentially “divisive,” recently said that Canada may require travellers to show proof of vaccination before they can enter the country. “We are looking very carefully at it, hoping to align with allied countries,” he told reporters.

On May 31, Ontario announced it would make an exception to restrictions on indoor gatherings to allow 550 fully vaccinated health workers to attend a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game – reigniting online debate about the potential for vaccine passports in the province.

Discussions about easing pandemic restrictions based on vaccination status are underway in Saskatchewan and ongoing in Quebec, according to officials in those provinces. Likewise, a spokesperson for the Yukon government told CMAJ “consideration is being given to what restrictions could be lifted, based on vaccine status.”

Last month, Manitoba issued a public health order allowing vaccinated personal care home staff to work at more than one site. Meanwhile, the Northwest Territories eased self-isolation requirements for travellers who are fully vaccinated. Prince Edward Island has indicated it may do the same, although the government did not respond to requests for more information.

British Columbia’s Ministry of Health says it is “supportive” of using proof of immunization for international travel and will “continue to monitor the rate of vaccination throughout the province to better understand when it is safe to ease restrictions.”

However, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has raised concerns about requiring proof of vaccination for everyday activities. “This virus has shown us that there are inequities in our society that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, and there is no way that we will recommend inequities be increased by [the] use of things like vaccine passports for services [or] for public access here in British Columbia,” she said.

Earlier this year, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer said she could foresee “restrictions on certain types of activities” like travel based on vaccination status. The province’s department of health told CMAJ it is following federal-provincial-territorial discussions about vaccine passports “to ensure we are in step with what other jurisdictions may be doing.”

Spokespeople for other provinces and territories emphasized that everyone must follow the same public health measures in the meantime. The strongest opposition to vaccine passports has come from Alberta, where Premier Jason Kenney has said his government won’t provide or require them.

The Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsmen is urging governments to take “a cautious approach that places fairness at the heart of any potential vaccination certification system that is applied to public services.” That includes accommodating people who are not vaccinated and ensuring that decisions about access to services are evidence-based, transparent, clearly communicated, and subject to appeal.

Photo credit: iStock/Vladimir Vladimirov

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