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With rationale for Ontario's vaccine certificate waning, experts weigh in on passport removal plan

As Ontario prepares to lift its vaccine passport system on March 1, the head of the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table says the rationale for the two-dose benchmark that the program instituted has been diminishing over time.

Efficacy of 2-dose vaccine certificate 'diminishing over time,' says head of Ontario science table

Dr. Peter Juni, who is the head of the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says it will be important to continue monitoring the COVID-19 situation in the weeks ahead, and to not 'waste' the progress that has been made in the past month. (CBC)

As Ontario prepares to lift its vaccine passport system on March 1, the head of the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table says the rationale for the two-dose benchmark that the program instituted has been diminishing over time.

"We don't want just to maintain certificates to keep a ... sense of security, which is not really supported by science," Dr. Peter Jüni told CBC Toronto. 

While experts are divided on the timing of the province's move, infectious disease specialists who spoke with CBC News Monday do agree that requiring proof of vaccination in so many settings wasn't sustainable long term.

Jüni said the province found itself at a crossroads with the current system, given the reduced protection that two doses offer against transmission of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Ontario could have brought in a three-dose vaccine mandate, Jüni said — but this would have been a challenge, given the number of people out there who have recently been infected with the virus and are delaying their third dose, as per recommendations from Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).

The other option was to eliminate the two-dose vaccination certificate altogether.

"Rather than having this as a token, it should be lifted entirely," Jüni said.

The removal of the vaccine passport system was among several changes the province announced Monday in response to declining hospital and ICU admissions of COVID-positive patients, and other improving public health indicators. 

The government also announced plans to lift capacity limits on Thursday in a number of settings, including bars, gyms and restaurants, and to allow gatherings of up to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. 

On March 1, if public health indicators continue to improve, the vaccine certificate requirement will also lift, though businesses can still require vaccination if they choose. Capacity limits in all remaining indoor public settings will also lift at that point.

Masking requirements are set to remain in place for now. 

Jüni said wastewater monitoring shows the COVID-19 situation in Ontario "is actually looking pretty good right now," and he expects hospitalizations and ICU admissions to continue declining over the next two weeks. 

Physician 'quite happy' with move

Infectious disease physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says he is enthusiastic about the lifting of restrictions. 

"I'm actually quite happy about this," said Chakrabarti, who works at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga. 

Chakrabarti noted 90 per cent of Ontarians age 12 and above have now been fully vaccinated — and that the vaccination rate for those who are 60 or older is even higher. 

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti agrees with the plan to lift capacity limits and other public health restrictions. (CBC)

"With this in mind, I think that what we've done is protected [ourselves] the best we can, and we have to now move on to other aspects of life that have gone to the wayside in the last two years," he said. 

When it comes to removing proof-of-vaccination requirements, Chakrabarti said he understands some people who are vaccinated are nervous about being around those who aren't. Again, he reiterated that people who are vaccinated have a lot of protection against severe illness and hospitalization. 

"[The unvaccinated person] — they're the ones that would be assuming the risk going into a public place," he said. 

'Don't know if we're out of the woods,' expert says

Dr. Anna Banerji is urging people to continue getting their vaccines and booster shots. (CBC)

Dr. Anna Banerji, associate professor of pediatrics and infectious disease at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said she has more mixed feelings about the plan to lift restrictions. 

"I understand that we can't keep these things forever," said Banerji. "However, I don't know if we're out of the woods yet." 

In particular, Banerji is worried that lifting proof-of-vaccination requirements could give people the green light to forgo vaccines or booster shots.

"That might just prolong this COVID situation even longer," she said.

Banerji also has some concerns about the timing of the announcement. At Monday's press conference, Premier Doug Ford said the decision to ease public health measures was not in response to pressure from convoy protests across Ontario, but rather was made "despite it." 

Still, Banerji said, "we don't even want the impression that it is in response to that kind of behaviour.

"Because then the next time a group of people don't agree with the policy, it justifies them having a convoy again like that," she said. 

Ontario's loosening of restrictions comes 'despite' protests, says Ford

5 months ago
Duration 0:50
Ontario's plan to ease public health restrictions against COVID-19 was already in the works, says Premier Doug Ford, and is not because of the protests.

Need to 'take it slow,' says Jüni

Going forward, Jüni said, Ontario needs to "take it slow," monitor the COVID-19 situation, keep up with masking and encourage everyone who is eligible to get their booster shots. 

On Monday, the province also announced young people between 12 and 17 will be able to book their booster shots beginning Friday. 

Jüni noted that public health measures that were brought in in January have helped bring COVID-19 case counts down significantly.

"Now we need to benefit from that, and not waste all the efforts that we've had by just pretending it's over and now to start to immediately party tomorrow."

People wearing masks as a countermeasure to COVID-19 walk through the snow in Toronto on Dec. 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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