Eganville – With low COVID infection numbers and vaccination rates of almost 80 percent of eligible people in the district covered by the Renfrew County and District Health Unit (RCDHU), today (Wednesday) marks the introduction of vaccine passports for restaurants, bars, theatres and sporting facilities, among others.
“It is important,” noted Dr. Robert Cushman, acting medical officer for the RCDHU. “The vaccine passport is evolving, but it is coming and will be there eventually.”
The vaccine passports did not arrive suddenly or unexpectedly, but there has been a great deal of confusion about how they will be handled.
“It is a work in progress,” he noted.
As of today, Ontarians must be fully vaccinated to go to what is considered a “non essential” business. The complete list of businesses requiring vaccine passports includes higher-risk indoor businesses and settings where face coverings cannot always be worn. They are: restaurants and bars (excluding outdoor patios, as well as delivery and takeout); nightclubs (including outdoor areas of the establishment); meeting and event spaces, such as banquet halls and conference/convention centres; facilities used for sports and fitness activities and personal fitness training, such as gyms, fitness and recreational facilities with the exception of youth recreational sport; sporting events; casinos, bingo halls and gaming establishments; concerts, music festivals, theatres and cinemas; strip clubs, bathhouses and sex clubs and racing venues (e.g., horse racing).
While an app with a QR (Quick Response) code is in the works and slated to be rolled-out in October, for now people will have to show ID and their vaccination certificate. Dr. Cushman said he went ahead and shrunk his certificate down to something easier to carry and had it laminated. That way if he needs to produce it, he can do so easily.
“The onus will be on the individual to show they are vaccinated,” he said.
The importance of vaccine passports is clear to him, especially noting what is happening in Saskatchewan and Alberta with high infection rates, he said. As well, since the vaccine passports were brought in earlier in Quebec a lot of the bugs have been worked out of that system, he said.
When it comes to enforcement, he said this was still being discussed locally at the health unit on Monday.
“Under the re-opening of Ontario Act there is a potential for any by-law officer or police officer to do it,” he said. “There is a little lack of clarity.”
Determining how this will be enforced, “will take us a little while to get there,” he added.
Acknowledging the previous closures have been tough for many of these same businesses, he said business owners want to do what is best.
“You want to preserve your business and protect your clients and staff,” he said.
Having 90 percent of patrons feeling safe is a better option than worrying about the 10 percent or so who will not come to the business, he stressed.
Vaccination rates locally are high and on par with the provincial averages. In the district 79.9 percent have received two doses and 85.4 have received one dose.
“We went up a percentage last week on both counts,” he noted, adding another 600 doses were administered.
Among those doses in recent weeks are the third doses for long-term care residents.
Dr. Cushman said he believes third doses should only be given to the most vulnerable populations, agreeing with international calls to not give third doses until other countries have had the opportunity to have one dose.
“This is a pandemic,” he said. “This is world-wide. We’ve got to get those vaccines distributed worldwide. Most of us can wait.”
There is also the complication of variants. Most of the cases recently in the county have been exclusively the more contagious Delta variant. When asked about the low percentage of positivity in the cases – right now about one percent of tests are positive – Dr. Cushman said a variety of tests are being administered.
“Is it surveillance or high-risk contacts?” he said. “You have to be careful with that. With Delta once it gets into a household it is more transmissible.”
He did give praise to businesses that have managed to keep the virus and variant from spreading.
While there are breakthrough infections, he said they are very rare, he said.
“No one said these vaccines were 100 percent effective,” he said, stressing distancing, masking, avoiding crowds and other measures are still vital. “We have to think about how large a social gathering we want to expose ourselves to.
“And 14,000 eligible people are unvaccinated (in the district),” he said. “Throw this in with another 12,000 kids who are not eligible and there is an opportunity for the Delta variant.”
Now Pfizer has stated they have done testing and recommend a lower-dose vaccine for children between six and 11 years old. However, it will take some time before this is approved, he believes.
“It is one thing for Pfizer to do their research, but you need regulating bodies to do their research,” he said.
As well, when it comes to this age group, they are more vectors than cases, he said.
“But it would increase our herd immunity significantly,” Dr. Cushman said.
The school year has gotten off to a good start with no closures or other issues in the primary or secondary school population, he said.
As to how long the added precautions will be necessary and how long the pandemic will last, there are still no answers.
“I can’t make predictions,” Dr. Cushman said.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader