Canada’s chief public health officer said Friday the federal government is actively reviewing all of its vaccine mandates with an eye to ending rules that force some people to get their COVID-19 shots.
Speaking at a press conference with reporters, Dr. Theresa Tam said the country’s public health officials are at a “very important juncture” and COVID-19 policies may soon shift from “an emphasis on requirements to recommendations.”
The federal government currently demands that all federal public servants, workers in federally regulated industries and the transportation sector and members of the travelling public get their COVID-19 shots if they want to go to work, fly on a plane or travel by train.
“The Treasury Board is actively examining all these policies,” Tam said, referring to the branch of government that is nominally the employer of all federal civil servants.
“I think the federal government has taken a very precautionary, thoughtful approach. They’re looking at a phased approach of removing some of these policies. I know these policies are being reviewed and re-examined as we speak.”
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said the federal government and the provinces are in a “transition phase” and will be putting less of an emphasis on forcing people to make certain health choices.
Njoo said that as the COVID-19 situation evolves, there will be a greater focus on personal responsibility.
“All jurisdictions are trying to find a useful balance between what they make mandatory and impose on their citizens and what they can count on individuals to do themselves,” he said.
Omicron changed everything: Tam
Tam said all federal vaccine mandates are under review now because the science tells us the primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine — the first two doses — offers very little protection against the Omicron variant.
While scientists and vaccine developers initially thought those first two shots would reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, the emergence of new variants with different characteristics has upended that thinking, Tam said.
Vaccine mandates were first pitched as a way to make some spaces safer by limiting entry to the vaccinated. But given what is now known about the primary series’ effectiveness against transmission, those policies are being reviewed, Tam said.
“The game changer has been an Omicron variant, which is a vaccine-escape variant,” Tam said.
“What we know is that, with the Omicron variant, having two doses — the protection against infection and further transmission goes really low. You really need a third dose to provide augmentation against transmission. All that should be taken into account as the federal government looks at the policies going forward.”
While the first two doses do very little to stop someone from contracting COVID-19, Tam said they still offer some protection against severe outcomes like hospitalization and death.
Boosters are critically important now, Tam says
While Canada’s high vaccination rate has helped protect the country’s hospitals from being overwhelmed to the point of collapse during the Omicron wave, Tam said it’s critically important that more people get a booster dose — a third shot that is even more effective at keeping people out of hospital.
She said more people over the age of 50 need to get the booster to make Canada’s public health system more resilient as governments begin to lift COVID-19-related measures, such as limits on social gatherings and mask mandates.
Dr. Christa Sinclair-Mills visits with Geraldine Anderson to administer her COVID-19 booster shot in her apartment in Toronto on January 21, 2022. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)
“We’re in a period of uncertainty where the virus is still undergoing evolution, so getting up to date with vaccines and wearing a mask is really a good idea,” Tam said.
Tam said it would be difficult to expand vaccine mandates to cover a third dose because eligibility for a third shot varies considerably among age groups. Moreover, people with a previous Omicron infection have been told to wait up to three months between a positive test result and getting a third dose.
“It becomes a very complicated algorithm to work out,” Tam said. “All of this has to be borne in mind when the government makes its policy decisions. You also have to make it relatively simple for travellers.”