The New Brunswick government will decide within three weeks whether it will introduce COVID-19 vaccine passports and reimplement mandatory masks in public spaces, says Premier Blaine Higgs.
The province has sought advice on the issues, he said.
"We've asked for analysis of that and to receive that within cabinet within the next two weeks."
New Brunswick has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in the past month, including 16 new cases confirmed Friday, putting the province's active case count at 160. Three people are hospitalized, but no one is in intensive care.
On Thursday, Dr. Cristin Muecke, the deputy chief medical officer of health, recommended people wear masks in indoor public spaces, given the "surge" in cases since the province moved to the green phase and lifted all restrictions, including masking. Public Health is particularly concerned about 14 cases spread through community transmission, she said.
Although some other jurisdictions have reimposed mask mandates, Higgs doesn't believe the situation in New Brunswick warrants mandatory masks at this time, and thinks it's unfair to penalize people who have gotten the vaccine.
"If you look across in Manitoba and B.C. or Quebec, Ontario, their situation continues to be very different than ours. I know we spend a lot of time talking about case count. Case count … hasn't really been anything we didn't expect here. But we have not had the hospitalizations … We don't have the severe sickness."
Higgs noted nearly 75 per cent of New Brunwickers aged 12 and older are now fully vaccinated and more than 84 per cent have had at least one dose.
"And then we have a group that [have] just chosen not to" get vaccinated.
"I mean, do we continue to say to those that there is no benefit to you to be vaccinated because you've got to continue to wear a mask anyway? … So there's a balance here."
Pressed on the fact that the unvaccinated include not only people who choose not to get the vaccine, but also people who are medically unable to, as well as children under 12 who are ineligible, and that even vaccinated people can pass the virus along, Higgs said: "Anyone can wear a mask, and we certainly encourage that. I mean, if you feel better wearing a mask, certainly do that. There's no harm in that."
Passports could be needed
Vaccine passports, which could restrict what unvaccinated people can do, may soon be on the horizon, if vaccination rates don't pick up, Higgs suggested.
Other jurisdictions, such as B.C., have seen a "significant uptake of vaccinations" after introducing passports, he said. "And that's what we want."
If New Brunswick moves to a passport system, business owners could say, "you know, 'You can't come into this facility. I want only vaccinated people,'" Higgs said.
To those of you that haven't [gotten vaccinated], we're going to find ways for you to want to be vaccinated. - Blaine Higgs, premier
"To those of you that haven't [gotten vaccinated], we're going to find ways for you to want to be vaccinated. We're seeing it across the country."
B.C. and Quebec have created smartphone-based vaccine passports that people can use to prove their COVID-19 immunization status in commercial or public spaces and Manitoba is expected to launch its own passport-style program in the coming weeks.
New Brunswick is developing an app, Higgs said.
Trudeau promises $1B to help provinces pay for passports
On Friday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced a billion-dollar fund to help provinces create their own vaccine passports.
If a province requires everyone to show proof of vaccination before entering a business, Trudeau said if he is reelected, Ottawa would pay for the development and rollout of that program.
Higgs said he remains hopeful that as the end of summer approaches and students get ready to head back to school Sept. 7, "we will see a big uptake in the desire to be vaccinated."
He was quick to dismiss a proposal floated by the Liberals to create a lottery and award prizes to people who sign up for shots as a way to boost vaccination rates.
"No, I'm not paying someone to get vaccinated," he said.