As delta variant spreads, Canada's top doctors say mandatory vaccination for some workers is on the table
'I would say just stay tuned on that front, because everything is being looked at,' Dr. Theresa Tam says
With Canada's vaccination campaign stalling just as COVID-19 case counts are rising, the chief public health officer said today the federal government is considering mandatory vaccinations for some workers to increase protection.
Canada has emerged as a world leader in vaccine coverage, with 81 per cent of the eligible population having had at least one dose.
While that's a high number, it suggests there are still more than 5.7 million people over the age of 12 who have chosen to forgo a shot altogether, or to wait for a later date. The number of unvaccinated Canadians is roughly equivalent to everyone living in the Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton metropolitan areas combined.
Experts agree vaccination coverage needs to be higher than it is now. Widespread infections among millions of unvaccinated Canadians could be enough to overwhelm the health care system again. New variants also threaten to penetrate the high level of protection that the fully vaccinated currently enjoy.
Canada is awash in shots and every level of government has spent considerable time and money trying to convince people to get a dose that could save them from hospitalization and death with a much more virulent strain of the virus in circulation.
Dr. Theresa Tam said today there are now other options on the table — including vaccine mandates for public servants and others who work in close proximity to vulnerable populations.
'The carrot, the stick and everything else'
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed the clerk of the Privy Council, the most senior public servant in Canada, to look into making vaccines mandatory for federal employees and those working in federally regulated sectors (airlines, banking, broadcasting and railways, among others) in an effort to boost stalled vaccination rates.
"That last mile is a very difficult one and that's precisely why the prime minister has asked for this to be examined thoroughly, including every policy that is at the disposal of the employer and Treasury Board in the federal government setting," Tam said, referring to the department that officially employs most public servants.
"The carrot, the stick and everything else in between has to be examined from all angles. I would say just stay tuned on that front because everything is being looked at."
WATCH: Federal public health officials talk about ways to reach the unvaccinated
Tam's deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, said it's clear that public health recommendations have not been enough to encourage the holdouts to get vaccinated.
"Maybe you need to use additional carrots," he said, adding that provinces and territories may want to impose limits on the unvaccinated so that "certain privileges" — such as sporting events or concerts — are reserved for people who've had both doses.
He said a federal mandate that demands all bureaucrats and workers in federally regulated industries get a vaccine would in turn give private businesses the leeway to impose their own vaccination requirements on workers. In the U.S., a number of companies and government departments already have said they will demand their employees either get a shot or find a new job.
"The mandatory vaccination — that is probably the most heavy-handed tool but that's something that needs to be looked at," Njoo said.
"It sets a tone, an example for many other sectors to say, 'Hey, this is something that we should be taking much more seriously as a country,' so that's why the prime minister has asked the clerk to look at it seriously. Those sort of deliberations are ongoing."