COVID-19 vaccine passports? Ontario's suggestion to card residents may not be the smartest move right now, expert says

Ontarians who are quick to the trigger to get a vaccine could be able to move around a little more freely, if all things go according to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot’s plan. During a COVID-19 briefing a few weeks ago, the Health Minister said the province was looking into the concept of a vaccine passport, which would be issued to people who had received a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming year.

Vaccine passports aren’t new and in fact have been used for dozens of years when traveling to certain countries to ensure visitors are properly immunized. However, with the COVID-19 vaccine passport, it seems Ontarians would be able to reintegrate into a normal life.

“[It’s] going to be really important for people to have for travel purposes, perhaps for work purposes, for going to theatres or cinemas or any other places where people will be in closer physical contact when we get through the worst of the pandemic,” Elliott said.

While COVID-19 vaccine shots cannot be mandated, Elliot mentioned that businesses could require Ontarians to provide a proof of immunization.

“There may be some restrictions that may be placed on people that don’t have [a vaccine] … but that will be up to the individual person to decide whether they want to receive the vaccine to be able to do these things or not. But it is voluntary.”

Is Ontario jumping the gun with vaccine passport?

With Canada only just rolling out the first fleet of vaccines, Ontario’s idea of floating a vaccine passport seems to be jumping the gun.

“I think it is still a little bit in its infancy in terms of its development. I know that they've developed and are currently developing a good system to track people who have had the vaccine across Canada,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, Chair and Medical Director of Infection Prevention & Control at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Evans added that talking about a strategy regarding vaccine passports may be putting the cart before the horse, as we’re still several months away from immunizing the general public.

“Where should you be spending your money right now? Should you be spending money on vaccine passport development issues? Should you be spending more money on the communication plan? The answer is to spend a lot on communications. Invest your money there,” he said.

The notion of vaccine passports could be great, but trying to create databases whether physical or digital will be a challenge, especially with ones that ensure privacy for users. As a result, Dr. Evans notes that a vaccine passport won’t come until next summer.

“There are so many details that would need to be worked out. The logistics of it would have to be worked out. I think planning needs to begin now, but initiation and bringing it into place really isn't gonna be needed for at least another 6 to 8 months,” said Dr. Evans.

For the most part, there are civil liberty issues around Canadians having to disclose their medical history to a business or anyone else, and if not having a vaccine passport could cut off people from accessing services.

“There are just lots of nitty gritty issues in this ranging from would it create a different class of citizens? Is there a privacy issue?” said Dr. Evans.

While the ethical and legal aspects of a vaccine passport are a little more complicated than what appears on the surface, Dr. Evans sees the benefit it could bring to a weakened Ontario economy. A vaccine passport could allow people travel, dine-in doors, visit arcades and places for activities and allow for delayed surgeries to resume.

“I understand why they want to do it, because for individuals in society like healthcare workers, first responders, people who are traveling -- it would have some utility,” he said.

While investing in new applications and procedures to monitor and track vaccine passports could be effective, Dr. Evans noted that Ontario can’t take its eye off the ball when it comes to ensuring prevention control measures are still intact.

“The vaccine is gonna be an important tool in controlling COVID-19, but there's lots of other controls that are gonna have to remain in place that we need to continue to invest in,” said Dr. Evans.

Hand-washing and face-masks will likely need to stay around and vaccine passports, while a great idea for businesses, should not take precedence over preventive control measures, according to Dr. Evans.

“I think vaccine passports are something that's down the line because most of the effort right now is actually on getting the vaccine distributed and administered to people,” he said.

While Canada will begin immunizing the general public in 2021, Dr. Evans notes we are still far away from the vaccine becoming readily available to more Canadians, and it’s likely going to take a while before normalcy exists.

“By the time summer comes along, we're gonna be into a vigorous campaign of immunizing people, and we're going to have a portion of the population immunized, but a return to normality, I think this time next year we'll have something that more closely resembles a typical holiday period,” he said.