Ontario’s lack of vaccine incentives could cost us the fall

OPINION: The health minister says there's no need for financial incentives to get the shot. That's okay for now — but things could look different in September
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 15, 2021
Premier Doug Ford looks on as Health Minister Christine Elliott answers questions at Queen's Park on November 16, 2020. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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For once in this province’s history, the Ontario government has decided not to use a lottery as a solution to its problems. And, pardon the pun, that’s a gamble that could cost us all dearly in the fall.

Ontario has relied on lotteries and legal gambling for decades to help plump up its coffers without formally raising taxes (critics, of course, have never stopped reminding everyone that gambling is a tax, just one that’s levied very inequitably). But in the pandemic, lotteries have taken on a different utility: getting people to get their vaccines. In the United States, Ohio saw vaccine uptake jump 47  per cent when it introduced a lottery for people who signed up to get their shots, and now multiple Canadian provinces have joined in the action.

But not Ontario. On Monday, health minister and deputy premier Christine Elliott told reporters at Queen’s Park that the government is not considering any kind of financial incentives, because Ontarians are snapping up vaccines as fast as they’re coming in.

”No we’re not, because we’re seeing people come forward quite willingly to receive their shots,” Elliott said. “We’re well on our way to having 20 per cent of the population vaccinated in order to move to Step 2 of our reopening plan. So we’re very grateful to the people of Ontario for being so willing to receive their shots.” 

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While I’ve previously argued for financial incentives to get people vaccinated — I suggested the government just cut people a cheque  — let’s at least lay out the strongest case for the government’s position as it stands right now. Ontario is already blowing through its own benchmarks for vaccinations: as Elliott noted, nearly 75 per cent of people 18 and older have received one shot, and 16.8 per cent have received two as of Tuesday morning. More important, the people with two shots are heavily represented in the older and more vulnerable age groups: 55 per cent of people over 80 and 22 per cent of the 60-69 crowd have a second shot.

These numbers strongly suggest we’ll continue to see a fall in severe hospitalizations and deaths at least for the early summer. The benchmark for moving to Step 2 of reopening is to have 20 per cent of people with two shots by July 2; we’ll almost certainly hit that number on or before the end of this week, well ahead of schedule. And at the current pace of vaccinations, we’re very likely to hit the benchmarks for Step 3 opening before we even get to Step 2. 

It’s entirely plausible that Ontario will end up getting at least 80 per cent of people over the age of 18 vaccinated before our numbers start to plateau; the very large majority of those will have both their shots before August 1, and it won’t be long before we include the 12-17 crowd in those numbers. too. That really will be something the government — and the rest of us — can be proud of.

The lingering question is whether it will be enough or whether we’ll need something to nudge those numbers a little bit higher for the fall.

The fundamental problem hasn’t changed: newer, more infectious variants of COVID-19 raise the threshold for herd immunity. COVID Classic needed perhaps only 65 per cent of the population to be vaccinated so that we could abandon our other public-health measures — the threshold for the Delta variant may be as high as 90 per cent. And it’s worth emphasizing that there are still millions of Ontarians today who are entirely unvaccinated, including everybody under the age of 12. And this disease continues to have the capacity to wreak havoc in unvaccinated populations, as recent events in Timmins and remote First Nations around James Bay have shown.

The alternative to achieving herd immunity would be leaving some of our public-health measures in place, at enormous cost: Are bars and restaurants going to have to continue to operate with capacity limits and masking rules into the fall and winter? Are movie theatres going to be restricted to half-capacity?

Various polls have found that Ontario is doing well on the vaccine-hestitancy front; only about 10 per cent of the population has told Angus Reid that they are unwilling or unsure about getting their shots. So if the polling bears out and if vaccine access improves after the bulk of the population has received their second doses, this may end up being a problem we don’t need public policy to solve.

But polls are not a perfect guide to the future (something elected politicians know all too well!), and the premier’s office and the Ministry of Finance — which would need to have a chat with Ontario Lottery and Gaming — may want to have a contingency plan in their back pockets for the fall, in case we start to see the number of Ontarians seeking first shots flatline over the summer. This is one of those times where “almost there” might simply not be good enough

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