Why COVID-19 vaccination exemptions are rare on P.E.I.

Some Islanders hoping to skirt COVID-19 vaccination requirements on P.E.I. through a medical or religious exemption are winding up disappointed. 

'It's important for people to know it's not just about their personal conviction'

The province, UPEI, and Holland College all consider vaccination exemption requests. But to date, relatively few exemptions have actually been granted. (Vitaly Timkiv/The Associated Press)

Some Islanders hoping to skirt COVID-19 vaccination requirements on P.E.I. through a medical or religious exemption are winding up disappointed. 

The P.E.I. Human Rights Commission says it's had several calls from people wondering if they have grounds for an exemption, or to file a human rights complaint if they're not granted one. 

That's since the province brought in its Vax Pass program in early October, and UPEI and Holland College made vaccinations mandatory for staff and students. 

"But we haven't had any where we've said 'Yeah, you should come in and file a complaint. That would pass the test,'" said Brenda Picard, the commission's executive director. "It's important for people to know it's not just about their personal conviction."

Brenda Picard, executive director of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission, says the commission's received several calls from Islanders wondering if they have a valid reason for an exemption. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office does consider exemption requests from Islanders who claim they can't get vaccinated against COVID-19 for medical reasons, and want to enter non-essential businesses and events without a Vax Pass. 

UPEI and Holland College review both medical and religious exemption requests. With an exemption, students and staff who aren't fully vaccinated can stay on campus, as long as they go through weekly testing. 

'Extremely rare'

But based on statistics provided to CBC, the number of exemptions actually granted has been low. 

Since the province launched its Vax Pass program in early October, the Chief Public Health Office has received 48 medical exemption request forms from physicians or nurse practitioners on behalf of their patients. 

Of those, 43 exemptions have been approved. 

Islanders looking for a medical exemption from the province's Vax Pass requirements, must have their physician or nurse practitioner submit an exemption request to P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

It's a relatively small number because, as the province states on its website, "medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination may be granted for extremely rare circumstances."

"That may be someone who had an adverse event after the first dose, or if they have anaphylaxis to a component of the vaccine," said Dr. Heather Morrison, the province's chief public health officer.

Most student requests denied

UPEI didn't provide statistics on how many requests it's received and approved. 

But according to a spokesperson at Holland College, "the Registrar's Office received 24 student requests for exemptions out of 2,400 students. Very few student exemptions were approved." 

Holland College says while 24 students have applied for vaccination exemptions, 'very few' have been approved. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The college wouldn't reveal how many staff applied for exemptions, or break down how many of the requests were for medical or religious exemptions, citing privacy concerns. 

And while the spokesperson said the registrar reviewed medical exemption requests "with support from the college's nurse practitioner and with advice from the Chief Public Health Office," it's not clear how the college determined the validity of religious requests. 

Are there valid religious grounds? 

According to Picard, organizations are only required to provide a religious exemption if the applicant "can establish that religion does in fact have a spiritual belief that says they cannot get the vaccine, and that they're a member of that religion."

The challenge in this case, said Picard, is establishing the first part. 

"The majority of major religious leaders have indicated there's no religious reason why people cannot take a vaccine," she said. 

The City of Charlottetown is also in the process of considering medical and religious exemption requests from city staff and volunteers. That's ahead of its mandatory vaccination policy coming into effect on Nov. 30. 

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