Vaccine bookings double after Ontario passport announcement

After months of debate, Ontario is set to implement a vaccine certificate program in just three weeks. Adrian Ghobrial speaks with experts about the ethical concerns surrounding the policy.

By The Canadian Press

Ontario’s health minister says COVID-19 vaccine bookings through the province’s portal more than doubled on the day the government announced its vaccine certificate system.

On Tuesday, 3,479 appointments were booked using the provincial booking system alone. Yesterday, 7,125 appointments were booked through the portal.

Elliott says on Twitter that nearly half of the people getting vaccinated today are receiving their first dose.

The province’s vaccine booking system is one of several avenues available to secure a shot in Ontario – residents can also book through their local public health unit, at pharmacies, or get the shot at pop-up clinics.

Spokeswoman Alexandra Hilkene said that as of 1 p.m. on Thursday, 12,398 people had received a COVID-19 shot, compared to 9,391 by the same time the previous day.

Of those who got the shots on Thursday, 5,957 were receiving a first dose, compared to 3,764 on Wednesday.

Her statement comes a day after the province announced that Ontarians will have to show proof of inoculation to access some non-essential services, such as theatres, gyms and restaurant dining rooms.

The province’s vaccine certificate program, which comes into effect on Sept. 22, offers an exemption for Ontarians who cannot receive the shot for medical reasons.

Dr. Nancy Whitmore, CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, said doctors must be judicious about handing out exemptions.

“Given the level of fatigue we are all feeling – health care workers in particular – we all need to do whatever we can to mitigate any further spread of COVID-19,” said Whitmore, who is also the college’s registrar.

“We, as the regulator, want to do our part by ensuring the guidance around complex COVID-19 issues are strong and clear.”

There are very few legitimate medical reasons not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, she said.

They include an allergist- or immunologist-confirmed severe allergy or anaphylactic reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or to any of its components, and a diagnosis of myocarditis _ inflammation of the heart muscle _ and pericarditis, inflammation of the sac around the heart, after receiving an mRNA vaccine.

“Given the rarity of these exceptions, and in light of the fact that vaccines have been proven to be both safe and effective, any notes written for patients who qualify for a medical exemption need to clearly specify the reason they cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19 (i.e., document clear medical information that supports the exemption),” Whitmore wrote.

On a frequently asked questions page, the college tells doctors they have the right to refuse giving a medical exemption to the vaccine if there’s no basis for one.

“If you find yourself in this situation, clearly and sensitively explain to your patient that you cannot provide them with a note or form, along with the reasons why,” it says.

The scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table, which advises the province on the pandemic, said the vaccine certificate will be an important tool to help keep case counts low.

Without vaccination rates above 85 per cent, Ontarians will have to reduce their contacts to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels from the roughly 80 per cent they’re at now, the science table has found.

Dr. Peter Juni said Ontario was at that 70 per cent point during Step 2 of the province’s reopening plan. Ontario is currently in Step 3 of the plan and all further reopening has been paused.

“Our Step 2 was still case neutral, meaning the case numbers didn’t go up, they didn’t go down. We were OK,” he said. “What did we add? We added gyms, indoor dining and some other settings, and that’s what caused case numbers to increase over time.”

Those are the areas being targeted by the vaccine certificate system, to ensure people who aren’t protected against COVID-19 reduce their high-risk contacts, Juni said.

But not everyone is on board with the program.

A crowd gathered outside Toronto police headquarters in the city’s downtown on Thursday, chanting slogans such as “our body, our choice.”

John Martin, who was at the protest with his wife and two daughters, said he and his family aren’t vaccinated and aren’t planning on it.

“I feel it’s our right to choose,” he said, adding that if he won’t be allowed into certain establishments, “it’s a small price to pay.”

Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician in Toronto, said the anti-vaccine protests are emotionally draining.

“Health workers are already emotionally burnt out, and working extremely long hours, not being able to see their families and not being able to look after themselves” he said. “So in that context, having to deal with protests or seeing protests happen in front of a health-care setting, is just distressing.”

Ontario’s vaccine certificate program is intended to increase immunization rates in a bid to curb the fourth wave of the COVID-19.

The province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released updated modelling on Wednesday evening suggesting that the province will be in trouble if more people don’t get their shots.

If virus transmission isn’t reduced, the fourth wave of the pandemic could see more admissions to intensive care units than the third wave, as early as October, the table said.

“Because of the Delta variant and to avoid a lockdown in the fall, vaccination needs to accelerate substantially above 85 per cent of eligible population aged 12+ fully vaccinated and we need to reduce contacts to about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels until vaccination is high enough to protect the population,” the advisers wrote.

Roughly 83 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and older have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 76.6 per cent are fully vaccinated.

The number of daily diagnoses of the virus has been rising steadily in recent weeks, with 865 new cases reported in Ontario on Thursday. The province also counted 14 new deaths linked to the virus.

Elliott said 692 of the new diagnoses are in people who are not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.

Government data shows 320 Ontarians are hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 162 in the ICU and 105 on a ventilator. Elliott said 292 of those hospitalized are not fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.

The number of daily diagnoses of the virus has been rising steadily in recent weeks, with 865 new cases reported Thursday. The province also counted 14 new deaths linked to the virus.

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