With the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19 becoming more prominent in Ottawa, major public institutions within the city are implementing vaccine policies heading into the fall.
The University of Ottawa was the first to move ahead on a vaccine policy on Aug. 11.
"When an employer, when a large institution, when a trusted institution says this is what we expect, that normalizes a behaviour and often that is sufficient to compel a large number of people to accept the behaviour," said epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan, who is also an associate professor at the university.
Deonandan supports the decision for universities and workplaces to require vaccines noting public institutions, like the federal and provincial governments, set the parameters that put pressure on everyone else to fall in line.
"Anybody who purports to advocate for the health of the population and who is forward facing to the general public should be vaccinated," said Deonandan.
Carleton University and Algonquin College have followed in lockstep with the University of Ottawa on a vaccine policy.
For all three post-secondary institutions, people visiting campus would need a second vaccine dose by mid-October, which is a concern for Deonandan, who thinks this could have been implemented sooner, leading to a fully vaccinated return to school in September.
"I'm frustrated. Many of us were calling for this months in advance, but I understand what took them this long, is a lot of fear," said Deonandan.
"There's a lot of cowardice in this pandemic for our political leaders."
Carleton University has since updated its vaccination policy, on Aug. 24, which will require all individuals — students, staff, faculty, contractors, and visitors — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 if they are taking part in any in-person activities both on and off campus. Anyone with a medical or human rights exemption will have to undergo additional testing, with results presented within 72 hours before taking part in any in-person activities.
City of Ottawa
On a municipal level, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson wants a "comprehensive vaccine policy".
Ottawa Public Health is currently working on its own policy.
The City of Toronto has already announced employees must be vaccinated with both Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Transit Commission following suit. Only the Toronto Police Service said they were unsure whether their employees will commit to getting vaccinated.
Children's hospital CHEO will enact policies that "go beyond the Ontario government directive," making double vaccination mandatory for staff, contractors, volunteers and learners. It's not mandatory for patients, or their parents or caregivers.
Among those for whom vaccination is required, only those with "a documented medical or human rights exemption" will be exempt from the policy.
"For those not in compliance after completing vaccine education requirements, all options will be considered to effectively enforce the policy," according to a CHEO news release.
Ottawa's adult hospitals are also mandating employees be vaccinated based or going beyond the province's directive.
The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) said everyone must have received their first dose by Sept. 7 and second dose by Oct. 15. More than 90 per cent of medical staff and residents and more than 85 per cent of employees are fully vaccinated, the hospital said.
"TOH expects every member of our organization to receive the vaccine, as it is an important step to ensuring the safety of everyone in the hospital environment," the hospital wrote in a release on Aug. 24
Anyone who opts not to get vaccinated and continue working will be provided with further education on the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Montfort Hospital said any staff members who have not submitted their proof of vaccination by Sept. 7 will have to attend a training session on COVID-19. Everone will have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15, unless they have a medical exemption.
"After this date, refusal of the COVID-19 vaccination will no longer be an option. For those who do not comply with the requirements after completing the vaccination training, all options will be considered to effectively enforce our policy," the hospital wrote in a statement on Aug. 24.
Meanwhile, the Queensway-Carleton Hospital said it is going beyond the provincial directive and mandating all employees be vaccinated, no matter their positions, and will only make exceptions for those with a documented medical or human rights exemption.
In a release on Aug. 24, the hospital said the additional step "will provide some peace of mind to patients and families and help ensure we are using every available tool to keep them safe."
The hospital has a staff vaccination rate of approximately 90 per cent.
Bruyère, which provides heath care services through the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital, long-term care and assisted and independent living centre for seniors, said it is also enhancing its vaccination policy. In a release on Aug. 24, the company said anyone who "works, learns, does research, volunteers and is a member of the Designated Care Program at Bruyère" will have to be vaccinated unless they have a medical or human rights exemption.
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board is set to host an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss their COVID-19 policy heading into the school year.
Trustee Lyra Evans took to Twitter to announce plans to call for mandatory vaccinations for staff, guests and volunteer.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board is planning to allow unvaccinated educators and teens in schools. Should COVID-19 cases arrive in a school, the plan is to have unvaccinated students move to virtual learning, while vaccinated ones will remain in the classroom.
Tom D'Amico, the board's director of education, said the board is counting on Ottawa's high vaccination rate and physical improvements to schools to keep students safe, as 95 per cent are expected back in the classroom this fall. D'Amico said the board will continue to assess if additional restrictions are necessary.
Other local school boards have not shared any details about vaccine policies or meetings regarding a policy.
A spokesperson for Ottawa police said the force was consulting the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police about enacting a policy, but had not made a decision yet.
On Friday, the president of Ottawa Community Housing — the city's largest landlord — stated all employees and contractors who provide on-site work would need to be fully vaccinated.
No tolerance for 'refuseniks'
Provincially regulated employees like teachers or health-care workers can opt against a vaccine if they undergo regular testing, but Deonandan wishes all policies removed that caveat.
"We've learned this past year that we can rely on people to do a fair amount of heavy lifting, but there's not a lot of tolerance for a small number of refuseniks," he said.
He is concerned proof of vaccination will be based on an honour system in many places, which could lead to some people skirting the rules and stirring up trouble.
"If we fail to enact the proper mitigation steps and not have a thorough and well-monitored, and policed, vaccination policy for institutions, we're going to see outbreaks," he said.
"[It] might lead to calls to shut down those institutions again."
Education, including webinars, one-on-one, and group learning situations, will be key to educate people who are hesitant or unwilling to get vaccinated, he added.
"I think there's an opportunity here, especially in hospitals, universities, where we purport to be educators, to take the hesitant aside and offer them a thorough scientific education."