Ontario’s vaccine passport isn’t useless — but it won’t keep Delta at bay

OPINION: The premier has announced a provincial vaccine certificate. That’s good. But, for now, the more contagious variant is still in control
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 01, 2021
As of September 22, Ontarians will be required to use a domestic vaccine passport to enter some higher-risk businesses and other settings. (Lars Hagberg/CP)



Maybe it will be enough. That, in short, is my reaction to the vaccine-certificate system announced Wednesday by Premier Doug Ford at his first Queen’s Park press conference in more than a month. The certificate will apply in all the most obvious high-risk settings where there’s the greatest risk of spread, the province will roll out an app-based system by the end of October, and, in the meantime, we’ll all have to carry around our paper receipts (I’m looking into getting mine laminated).

Maybe it will be enough. The thing is, that’s exactly what I said about the regional framework the province tried to ride out the second and third waves of the pandemic with, and I was wrong. The regional framework didn’t just fail to keep the pandemic in check — it also failed repeatedly to achieve its own stated aim of balancing public-health measures against the broadest possible economic reopening. Judged by its own objectives, it failed as badly as it’s possible to fail in public policy with anything that doesn’t involve starting a land war in Asia. So I’m keeping my optimism in check.

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That said, it would be a mistake to think that nothing important was announced this week. The premier has belatedly come to accept the necessity of a provincial vaccine certificate. It’s later than it should have been, but not as late as I feared it might be. This isn’t unearned charitableness toward the government: when I wrote in July that “they’ll end up flip-flopping on this issue out of simple necessity,” I stated that I was worried the reversal would come as late as October. It’s late, but hopefully it isn’t too late.

And while lots of people are already poring over the details of the system as announced and trying to figure out how it will apply to their lives, my counsel is pretty simple: First, if you aren’t already vaccinated, please get your first shot as soon as possible. Second, don’t focus on the details the government is talking about today, because they are almost certainly going to change. The important point is that, by October 22, the machinery for the vaccine certificate will exist, and then the government will be able to turn the dial as needed — applying it to new or different businesses, applying it to workers as well as customers, or perhaps using it to allow some businesses (such as movie theatres) to have substantially more people indoors.

Why will the government have to change the details? Because the vaccine passport won’t keep the Delta variant at bay. Public Health Ontario’s stated position is now that — because of Delta’s increased infectiousness — herd immunity will be impossible to achieve until we can start immunizing people under 12. This doesn’t mean the vaccine passport is useless. Far from it. The pass will slow Delta, and, even more important, it will encourage people to get vaccinated and reduce their likelihood of hospitalization or death by more than 90 per cent.

But neither the public nor, seemingly, the government seems to fully grasp how much of a reversal the Delta variant represents. We are, in some ways, back to the strategies of the earliest days of the pandemic: what we need to do for the next several months is play for time until broader vaccinations are possible, and “bend the curve” of serious illness to preserve hospital capacity. Delta is going to find all of us eventually — the critical question is going to be whether you’ve been vaccinated first. The half-million or so Ontarians over the age of 50 who are currently without so much as a first dose of the vaccine are gambling with their lives, which I suppose is their right. But they’re also gambling with our ICU beds, which isn’t. It took just 700 or so people in the province’s ICU beds to force the government’s hand back in April: that’s how we ended up with the third lockdown.

I don’t know for certain what the future holds, and it’s odd that Wednesday’s announcement came without any kind of updated COVID-19 modelling from the science table to justify the government’s reversal. [Editor's note: updated modelling was released later on Wednesday afternoon.] But I’ve spoken with a number of scientists in the province throughout August to get their sense of what the fall holds for us, and about the sunniest thing I can report is that some of these conversations didn’t involve profanity. Don’t take my word for it: the chief medical officer, Kieran Moore, is not misleading the public when he says we’re heading for a difficult fall and winter.

(I take no pleasure in writing this. I went on record making the case for COVID-19 optimism this summer. Delta made a fool of me. That’s a hazard in this line of work.)

There are still ways to make things better (or worse). If everyone currently eligible for a vaccine were to get one, I’d still be worried about my own child under 12, but the risk to the province’s hospital system would be greatly diminished, and with it the risk of school closures. If Health Canada were to approve vaccines for the 5-to-12 set before Christmas, that’d be a miracle. All these things are worth hoping for, but hope isn’t a plan.

So we’re left with Wednesday’s announcement and the likelihood that it will drive higher rates of vaccination and reduce transmission among the unvaccinated. Those are both good things. But the details of where the pass will apply and where it won’t are going to change, and I’m not even sure they’ll last in an unmodified state until the app is ready in late October. The government is going to have to modify things, because at least for a little bit longer, we aren’t in control — COVID-19 is.

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