MONTREAL — Several faculty groups at McGill University are calling for the school to implement a vaccine mandate because they are worried about COVID-19 transmission when classes resume.
The McGill Association of University Teachers, the university's school of population and global health, the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health as well as a group of law professors have all written letters this week to university administration in favour of a mandate.
Nicole E. Basta, Canada Research Chair in infectious disease prevention and a member of McGill's epidemiology department, said Thursday that vaccination rates aren't high enough among students and faculty.
"Education about vaccines, increasing awareness and decreasing barriers to accessing vaccines are so important," she said in an email. "However, these approaches have been implemented for months and the vaccination coverage rate is still too low."
Basta said she would like to see an "opt-out" mandate system, where students and faculty would be required to undergo regular testing if they aren't vaccinated.
Universities and colleges in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba have said they will implement vaccine mandates on campus. No higher-education institutions in Quebec have announced similar plans.
Darshan Daryanani, president of the Students’ Society of McGill University, said the union has not taken a position on a vaccine mandate. He said he could support a mandate depending on how it's implemented but he's not sure the move would be legal.
He added any vaccine mandate would have to accommodate international students who haven't been able to get vaccinated in their home countries or who have received vaccines that aren't authorized for use in Canada. International students compose around one-third of the university's student population, he said.
"This mandate needs to be inclusive," Daryanani said in a recent interview.
McGill said it's taking several steps to keep students and staff safe, including requiring masks in classrooms and improving ventilation.
"In the absence of specific legal authorization, mandatory vaccination can be justified legally only if other reasonable means are insufficiently effective to ensure the health and safety of the community," university spokeswoman Katherine Gombay wrote in an email Thursday.
Richard Gold, one of the law professors calling for a vaccine mandate, said not only is McGill able to impose a mandate, the school could open itself up to lawsuits if someone gets sick on campus.
"I think they have a legal duty and we cannot, for the life of us, figure out why the universities are saying they can't," he said in a recent interview.
The Quebec government has said it will require proof of vaccination from university students who want to participate in extracurricular activities like sports.
Universities, however, are not included in the government's vaccine passport system, set to start Sept. 1. People in the province will need to show proof of vaccination for non-essential services such as bars and restaurants. Premier François Legault has said universities are an essential service.
"I think you cannot compare a restaurant with a university," he told reporters Tuesday. "It's essential to go to school."
Ian Rakita, president of the faculty union at Concordia University, Quebec's largest English-language university, said he thinks a vaccine passport system would be "a plus." Professors are approaching the return to school with mixed feelings, he said recently.
Unions at Concordia University will be meeting to discuss how a vaccine passport could be implemented, he said. "This is not a simple matter and requires a significant amount of planning before it can be realized."
A spokesperson for Concordia said Thursday in an email the school isn't considering imposing a vaccine mandate.
Meanwhile, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters Thursday the government is looking into expanding vaccination to 11-year-olds who turn 12 before the end of the year. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines are approved for use in Canada for people 12 and up.
Dubé made the comments after announcing $2.5 billion to rebuild and expand the aging Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital in eastern Montreal. The project is scheduled to begin in 2024.
Quebec reported 436 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and no new deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said hospitalizations linked to the pandemic rose by three from Wednesday, to 91, and 27 people were in intensive care, an increase of one.
Officials said 42,799 doses of vaccine were administered Wednesday and the province's public health institute said 85.8 per cent of residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of vaccine and 76.5 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press