Changes to proof of vaccination policy should be guided by data: Sask. experts

Saskatchewan doctors say changes to public health measures should be guided by metrics, as the Premier muses about whether the proof of vaccination requirement has run its course.

Premier says proof of vaccination has 'for the most part runs its course'

There should be a steady decline in COVID-19 case and hospitalization numbers before changes are made to proof of vaccination requirements, according to Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine said the state of COVID-19 in the province is "nowhere near" where it needs to be in order to safely scrap the proof of vaccination policy. 

Premier Scott Moe told a radio host this week that he thought requiring proof of vaccination had "for the most part runs its course."

"It increased our vaccination rates tremendously, but I think we're getting to a point now where those that are not vaccinated likely aren't going to get vaccinated," he said in a chat Wednesday with John Gormley on CJME/CKOM radio.

"That's our goal as a government, is get back to normal, and we're going to start taking some steps in that direction in the next number of days."

Moe said discussions about the those particular public health measures will be had sometime this month. 

"It certainly did take me by surprise," said Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, in response to Moe's comments. 

The existing public health measures are set until the end of February. Muhajarine urged politicians to wait until there's been a steady decline in case and hospitalization numbers before making changes. 

Premier Scott Moe's approval rating moved up two points, but his handling of the pandemic took a hit in a recent survey done by the Angus Reid Institute. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

On Thursday, there were 328 people with COVID-19 in hospital and the provincial test positivity rate was at 34 cent, indicating a continuing high level of community spread. 

"This is really not the time to be talking about lifting proof of vaccination policy."

Adding the third dose 

Muhajarine said there is an opportunity for government to chart a new course with the proof of vaccination policy that could increase uptake once again. He said the current criteria could be expanded so that people are considered fully vaccinated with three doses, instead of just two.

He said politicians should not pander to the complaints of people who suggest their "personal freedom" is violated by having to wear a mask or show proof of vaccination during a global pandemic. 

"My right to actually go out, go out and without a mask and eat in a restaurant, to get together with as many people as I want — in the middle of a pandemic, fifth wave — doesn't trump another person's right to life."

Muharjarine said he understands humans are social creatures and have faced significant disruptions because of the pandemic, but encouraged patience.

Economic concerns 

A Moose Jaw restaurant owner who spoke with CBC last week said the government should either drop proof of vaccinations or implement it at all public businesses, including places like grocery stores. 

"If you're going to mandate something, mandate it all across the board or don't mandate at all … all it's doing is putting businesses out and struggling to survive," said Ashlea Street, owner and operator of Streets Steakhouse and Bar in Moose Jaw. 

She said her business is staring down a looming closure, because costs are rising and fewer customers are coming through the doors. 

CMHO says future policy should depend on data

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer shared a message similar to Muhajarine. Dr. Saqib Shahab said Saskatchewan's plan for COVID-19 beyond Feburary should be dictated by the data. He said reduced cases and hospitalizations, as well as how many people have been vaccinated and exposed to COVID-19, are important factors to consider.

​"Most jurisdictions are optimistic of the spring and summer that​ [we] ​​can exit most, if not all, precautions​," Shahab said. "But I think again, that will depend on the data and evidence and risk as it evolves."

Shahab was hesitant to look long-term to the fall. He said too little is known about what variants could be circulating and how long vaccine protections will last. 

"The response will continue to evolve," he said. ​"I think it remains critical that Canada, along with all other countries, continue to support the rest of the world, also being able to access vaccinations and achieving a high vaccination rate globally."

with files from Scott Larson, Dayne Patterson