Ottawa

Ontario health units could create their own vaccine passports, says leading doctor

Local health units in Ontario could come up with their own vaccine passport if the province continues to resist, according to the head of a group representing public health agencies.

Province has said vaccine receipts are enough, but the pushback keeps building

Vaccine passports may be inevitable in Ontario, regional health unit says

2 months ago
2:02
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, says so many businesses are already requiring customers to be vaccinated that it makes sense to have a portable, central system for proving vaccination status. 2:02

Local health units in Ontario could come up with their own vaccine passport if the province continues to resist, according to the head of a group representing local public health agencies in the province.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the Medical Officer of Health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) and president of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies (ALPHA), says his health unit is "prepared" to explore its own vaccine passport, as discussed at a meeting on Wednesday.

He said other health units would have to follow suit to ensure there is consistency across the province, or at least in certain regions.

"If we do it and Ottawa doesn't, or vice versa … a patchwork is not right," Roumeliotis said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Thursday.

"If we're to do it in the absence of a provincial direction, if we were to do it locally, I would want to do it with a big region where we have ourselves, Ottawa, Renfrew, even all the way through Kingston."

Despite growing calls from many businesses, the Ontario government says it has no plans to issue vaccine passports but one local medical officer of health says they’re inevitable during the fourth wave. 9:09

In a follow-up email, Roumeliotis said ALPHA has sent a letter to Ontario's chief medical officer of health seeking a provincial approach as a response to the fourth pandemic wave, plus other recommendations.

Not all health units agree

Peel Region's medical officer of health also threw his support behind a vaccine certificate program, saying he was exploring local options if the province didn't step up with one.

The medical officers of health for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit — which has one of the best vaccination rates in the province — and Kingston Frontenac, Lennox and Addington disagreed, saying a vaccine passport system should come from the province.

Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's deputy medical officer of health, said Ottawa Public Health supports policies that could increase vaccination rates across the city and is currently in talks with the province about getting access to immunization records.

He also agreed that a provincial approach would be the strongest.

Roumeliotis said the discrepancy between health units' desires likely comes down to how their local area is faring on vaccination rates.

"There are parts of Ontario that don't have many cases and they would rather just wait for provincial direction and there are others that the numbers are creeping up," he said.

The Renfrew County and District Health Unit has seen only a small increase in confirmed cases in the past month, but its medical officer of health expects the situation to change with the delta variant fuelling a provincial surge, while students return to school over the coming weeks. 

"This is urgent," said Dr. Rob Cushman, "Every week we wait, is probably going to put us more at risk."

Cushman admits implementing a vaccine passport will also likely take time, whether left up to the province or the dozens of health units — or larger health regions — across Ontario.

He said it would be "ludicrous" for individual health regions to institute their own system due to a lack of consistency.

Provincial status quo

Ontario has repeatedly said it has no plans to go beyond offering residents a vaccination receipt, which critics — Roumeliotis included — say is easy to fake.

Roumeliotis said he wants "a uniform, efficient mobile standardized proof of vaccination" system to help verify people's status, particularly at large events.

The momentum for a vaccine passport system has also led to Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca to announce a summit scheduled for Monday on the need for better proof of vaccines, inviting major party leaders, including Premier Doug Ford, to attend.

In Quebec, which has several busy connections to eastern Ontario, a centralized proof of vaccination system launches on Wednesday. Ottawa's deputy medical officer of health said that plan has sparked concerns from businesses about different standards in Gatineau, Que., and the national capital.

With files from Matthew Kupfer

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