Manitobans will now be able to travel within Canada without having to self-isolate for two weeks after they return if they've been fully vaccinated.
An immunization card will be provided to individuals two weeks after they've received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday.
People are only considered fully vaccinated once they have waited two weeks after their second shot because that's how long it takes for the vaccine's antibodies to build up.
"We hope this is a temporary measure, of course, as we get to the point where everybody is vaccinated. But in the interim period, this is an important additional thing that'll benefit you," Pallister said.
The digital and physical vaccination cards contain no personal health information or data. They only show the person's first and last names and a QR code that will show the person is fully vaccinated when scanned.
Current federal rules still say anyone returning from travel outside Canada must self-isolate, regardless of whether they've been vaccinated.
But Pallister said being able to travel within Canada without the self-isolation requirement after returning to Manitoba is one of the first benefits of being fully immunized.
Provincial restrictions currently require every visitor or resident entering Manitoba to isolate for two weeks upon their return. Those orders have been in place in one form or another since April 2020.
WATCH | Pallister discusses Manitoba's decision to launch immunization card:
"We are all eager to be able to travel, visit family and friends, and enjoy the many freedoms we have taken for granted and missed these many months," said Pallister. "This has been a real tough time.
"The freedoms that we took for granted probably until a year-and-a-half or so ago, we need those freedoms back. We can earn them back."
The travel freedoms also apply to families with kids under 12, even though children that age aren't eligible for vaccination, Pallister said.
"Kids under 12 are exempt if the parents are vaxxed," he said. "So if you're looking to take a couple of noisy little kids on a car trip, you can come back home and you won't have to isolate."
Pallister also noted his government is speaking with other premiers about privileges fully-vaccinated visitors to Manitoba can expect, and what those from Manitoba are entitled to when they travel.
"Common sense should say that we would be able to extend some benefits to others who do the same thing we're extending to Manitobans here. But it isn't finalized so I'm not announcing it today."
Manitoba health-care facilities, including hospitals and personal care homes, will also permit expanded visitation if both the patient or resident and visitor are fully vaccinated, Pallister said.
That rule change is expected sometime in the coming week.
Another bonus already in place is that anyone identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case is exempt from self-isolation if they're fully vaccinated.
Additional benefits will be announced in the coming weeks, Pallister said.
The challenge now is reaching those who are vaccine-hesitant. Last week, Pallister unveiled a grant program meant to help groups increase vaccine uptake in areas where COVID-19 vaccinations are low.
The province set aside $1 million for grants of up to $20,000 each for cultural, arts, education, sports, religious, community and business organizations that can prove they have the ability to reach vaccine-hesitant people.
That measure was announced one day after health officials unveiled other strategies to reach people who haven't received their first dose because of difficulties in getting to provincial vaccination supersites.
Mobile outreach vans, house calls and community-hosted clinics are being launched to bring vaccines closer to those people.
Pallister said he believes the immunization card and the limited freedoms it brings will be an effective way to encourage people to get the shot.
"Manitobans have also told us that getting back to the things they love is one of the biggest incentives to getting vaccinated," he said.
"Vaccines are the way out of this pandemic. Vaccines are how we get our lives back."
As of Monday, 946,611 vaccine doses had been administered in Manitoba, with 66 per cent of eligible people — anyone age 12 and up — having received a first dose.
"As we move forward with our reopening plans and as more Manitobans get fully vaccinated, there may be more items or privileges available to those who have an immunization card," Pallister said.
Infringement on rights?
Asked specifically if the cards might be used for access to provincially-run attractions such as museums or casinos, Pallister said there were a lot of possibilities.
He said he would have more to say on that topic when he speaks about the government's reopening strategy later this week.
That strategy relies on the province meeting certain benchmarks, he said — likely vaccination levels and test positivity rates.
"I think all of us want to see some hope in the window. We want to see some possibilities of what could happen," Pallister said.
"I think it's important to lay that out and this week we plan to do that."
WATCH | Cards an effort to give fully vaccinated people 'some semblance of their lives back,' Pallister says:
He was also asked if the cards could be seen as an infringement on rights, particularly because not everyone can actually get a vaccine, such as those with certain health issues.
"We don't want to take away rights and freedoms from people. At the same time, COVID is doing that for us. The sooner we can get as many as possible vaccinated in Manitoba, the better off we're all going to be," Pallister said.
"We're all in this together, and I hope we can stay together. I don't want this card to be used as a divisive thing, I want it to be seen for what it is — an additional benefit to folks who choose to get a second vaccine, not anything but that."
Applying for the card
People can apply for the card using a new online portal through the government website.
Once someone has successfully completed the online request, they will automatically receive access to a digital card, according to a government news release.
There is also an option to request a physical card, which is then mailed to the address on the applicant's Manitoba health card within 14 days.
The province has studied the idea of offering cash incentives to those who get a shot, but provincial research suggested Manitobans don't like the idea of some people getting something that others can't receive.
However, Pallister has said he wouldn't rule out revisiting the idea in the future.
'A good thing all around'
Pallister's immunization card announcement elicited praise from Anand Kumar, an intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist in Winnipeg, who has often been critical of the province's decision-making during the pandemic.
"But in this case I'm impressed. I think they actually got ahead of the curve on this occasion," Kumar told CBC Manitoba Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos.
"There's a tremendous amount of pandemic fatigue in the community at large and this gives people that hope that they can start to get part of their lives back ... for those that are fully vaccinated."
It's also a way to encourage people who are hesitant to get the vaccine, he said, and "gives them a reason to reconsider that hesitancy. So I think it's a good thing all around."
Although the government has yet to change the current public health orders, Kumar suggests there could be a lot to look forward to, including larger gatherings once people are fully vaccinated, but he hopes the government doesn't throw open the doors completely when the current orders expire on June 12.
"Clearly, the numbers are coming down and I think the public needs some hope. I'd like to see all the parks open, for example, but I don't think it's the time at this stage to substantially reduce social restrictions.
"If we do that, I'm very confident that towards the end of the summer, maybe in mid-August, we'll start to see the numbers start to climb and we'll have a significant fourth wave down the road."