Because she’s unvaccinated against COVID-19, Tamika McIntosh of Brampton, Ont., wasn’t allowed to board a plane to fly to Jamaica last month to attend her grandfather’s funeral.
Now, McIntosh combs the news daily for any indication when Canada might lift its vaccine mandate for travellers so she can finally go to Jamaica and pay her last respects.
“You don’t get the closure when you don’t get to physically be there to say goodbye,” said McIntosh. “Until I physically get to go to his grave site and spend some time there, that void will always be open.”
Canada’s vaccine mandate — which took effect in November 2021 to boost vaccination rates — prevents unvaccinated Canadians from boarding a commercial plane or train in Canada to both domestic and international destinations. Now that COVID-19 restrictions are fast disappearing, some unvaccinated Canadians question why the federal government still maintains the mandate.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said McIntosh. “I don’t have mobility rights. I’m still stuck in a country and I can’t leave.”
Although COVID-19 vaccines available in Canada have been deemed safe and effective by Health Canada and other regulators, McIntosh still has reservations about getting the shot.
“I just feel like I have the right to choose,” she said.
Provinces dropping most vaccine mandates
More than 85 per cent of Canadians aged five and older are now fully vaccinated
Meanwhile, following a decline in COVID-19 cases after the Omicron wave, Canada’s provinces are dropping most or all of their vaccine mandates. That means unvaccinated people can return to venues such as restaurants, gyms and hockey games.
They are also welcome in many countries such as England, Ireland, Iceland and Norway, which have dropped all their COVID-19 travel restrictions. Other countries, such as Greece and Jamaica allow unvaccinated travellers to enter with a negative COVID-19 test.
The Canadian government isn’t “paying attention to the things that are going on in other countries,” said Kathy Neudorf of Langley, B.C., who is also unvaccinated and eager to travel.
“I don’t have the freedom to come and go as I choose … I can’t even go across to Quebec or something, because I can’t get on a plane.”
Global COVID-19 resurgence could delay plan
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, said Ottawa is reviewing its vaccine mandates for both travellers and federal workers, with an eye to dropping them. But she suggested the current resurgence of COVID-19 cases globally could delay that plan.
“The potential for the Omicron resurgence, particularly the subtype BA.2 can still occur. So I think this is just waiting to see what happens with that situation,” she said at a House of Commons health committee meeting on Monday.
At the same meeting, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos offered no timeline for ending federal vaccine mandates, but said the decision will be based on a number of factors including COVID-19 case numbers, waning immunity and vaccination rates.
Although Canada’s vaccination rate is high, Duclos noted that less than 60 per cent of Canadian adults have got their booster shot.
“We need more than that to protect against Omicron and future variants,” he said.
Currently, Canadians do not need a booster shot to qualify as fully vaccinated.
Many who are vaccinated still get COVID-19, expert notes
Some medical professionals say it’s time for Canada to rethink its vaccine mandate for travellers.
Infectious disease physician Dr. Zain Chagla points out that many people who got vaccinated also got COVID-19.
“Knowing that two doses of vaccines likely doesn’t prevent a lot of transmission, it really does start poking holes in the fact that this mandate is meant to [prevent] transmission,” said Chagla, a physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
He encourages people to get vaccinated, as data shows vaccines can help prevent serious illness and death from COVID-19.
But Chagla said now that the provinces have dropped their vaccine mandates, it would make sense for the federal government to follow suit.
“Going on a domestic flight and sitting in the … Scotiabank Centre for a Raptors game — the risks are not that far off,” he said. “But one of those events requires a proof of vaccine mandate.”
Unvaccinated pose a greater risk of infecting others: epidemiologist
Epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine takes a different stance. He argues the vaccine mandate for travellers should remain until the majority of the global populaton is fully vaccinated.
He said although vaccinated people can still get COVID-19, the unvaccinated pose a greater risk of infecting others, because they can carry the virus for longer.
“They will be shedding the virus, more of it for a longer time, which actually means that they will be more effective transmitters of the virus to others,” said Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, and a member of the federal government’s Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.
Nazeem also said it could be problematic if Canada were to drop the vaccine mandate, and then reinstate it at another time, if the pandemic worsens.
“Trying to reintroduce it is awkward, and it is never good policy,” he said. “People are confused.”