Province may revisit mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, says Higgs

Premier Blaine Higgs started isolating at home Dec. 29, when he tested positive for COVID-19 with a rapid test. 'Several' members of his immediate family subsequently tested positive. (CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs started isolating at home Dec. 29, when he tested positive for COVID-19 with a rapid test. 'Several' members of his immediate family subsequently tested positive. (CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick may revisit the issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, says Premier Blaine Higgs.

He made the comment Monday evening during an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, following a call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other premiers.

Until now, New Brunswick has maintained that education regarding vaccines is the key.

But the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, and case counts and hospitalizations are surging.

A record-high of 86 people are hospitalized because of the virus Monday, including 13 in intensive care. Ten people are on ventilators.

Hundreds of health-care workers are off sick or isolating, and hospitals are at the red COVID alert level, providing emergency or urgent services only.

"I think it's something that will get further discussion in New Brunswick, and probably across the country," said Higgs, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 29 with a rapid test after receiving two doses of AstraZeneca and a booster vaccine.

"Several" members of his immediate family, who were also fully vaccinated and received their booster doses, also subsequently tested positive.

Last Thursday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said provinces are likely to introduce mandatory vaccination policies in the coming months to deal with surging COVID-19 caseloads.

"What we see now is that our health care system in Canada is fragile, our people are tired, and the only way that we know to get through COVID-19, this variant and any future variant, is through vaccination," Duclos said.

"Fifty per cent of hospitalizations now, in Quebec, are due to people not having been vaccinated," he said. "That's a burden on health care workers, a burden on society which is very difficult to bear and for many people difficult to understand.

"That's why I'm signalling this is a conversation which I believe provinces and territories, in support with the federal government, will want to have over the next weeks and months."

Public patience 'wearing thin' toward unvaccinated

Higgs said the topic received "very limited discussion" during the premiers' call with the prime minister.

There are "varying views" across the country, he said.

He noted the New Brunswick Legislature voted in 2020-21 on proposed legislation to strengthen mandatory-vaccination rules for schoolchildren. The open vote on Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill to eliminate some exemptions was defeated 22-20.

Higgs said he voted in favour, but "there are varied opinions, and very strong opinions."

Still, that was more than a year ago and "people are wearing a little thin" on patience toward the unvaccinated, he said.

"They don't see why they have to have restrictions when they … have gone … the extra mile and got vaccinated.

"So it is becoming more and more of an issue."

People seem to be more willing to get vaccinated when it's required for certain social activities that affect them, Higgs observed.

"We have seen it — whether your kids are on a sports team and you want to go to the game, or in Quebec … you want to go to the liquor store, you have to be vaccinated.

"When it affects people personally, then it seems to become readily an option."

Goal is more than 90% fully vaccinated

Just last Friday, during a COVID briefing, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told reporters mandatory vaccination wasn't on the table.

"At this time, it's not a point of discussion," she said.

During that briefing, Shephard announced the health-care system will likely be "tested like never before" in the coming weeks.

"It is a serious issue, but we maintain right now that education, pushing for those to get vaccinated, showing the differences that the vaccine makes … that will be the path we'll stay on for the near future," she said.

"I can't say what happens down the road. But there isn't any place in Canada that is looking at mandates."

Higgs said he's hoping the province will be able to get more than 90 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and boosted, "and it will kind of be OK."

But mandatory vaccines "is a dialogue that we likely will have again in New Brunswick."

As of Monday, 83.2 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received two doses, 90.8 per cent have received one dose, and 26 per cent have received a booster dose.

According to CBC's vaccine tracker, 79.1 per cent of the province's total population is double-dosed and 86.4 per cent have received at least one dose.