Federal election voting safe despite threat of fourth wave, Tam says

In spite of widespread concerns about a variant-driven fourth pandemic wave taking place during an anticipated federal election, Canada's top doctor says in-person voting can be done safely.

Public health measures and vaccines can protect voters heading to the polls, top doctor says

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam at a press conference. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely expected to trigger an election over the next few weeks. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ahead of a widely-anticipated federal election call, Canada's top doctor says she's confident in-person voting can be conducted safely through public health measures — despite the threat of a variant-driven fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.

During a pandemic press briefing today, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said a combination of health protocols and Canada's high rate of vaccination can protect voters at the polling booths.

"I think that safety protocols have been put in place for different elections throughout Canada during the last month, so I think that can continue to be provided," she said. "So I think that there's definitely ways to vote safely."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely expected to ask the Governor General to call an election in the coming weeks.

Tam added that, in the event of an early election call, public health officials at the federal level would link Elections Canada with provincial and local health authorities to make adjustments to health measures based on local rates of infection.

Canada's last federal election was in October 2019 — about five months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on the Governor General to say no to an early election, citing public health concerns.

Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said yesterday that he believes holding an election while the delta variant is spreading would be "dangerous."

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Tam said voters should cast mail-in ballots only if they feel they are at risk.

"Certainly if there's a mail-in option, people can take advantage of that," she said. "You can look at your own level of risk ... so I think it's great to have an option, but in-person voting can be done safely."

Canada's chief electoral officer said this week that it could take days to determine the final result of a mid-pandemic election due to the anticipated volume of mail-in ballots, which could number in the millions.

During today's briefing, Tam said the average number of daily COVID-19 infections nationwide has increased by 54 per cent over last week to over 900. She added that infections are concentrated among unvaccinated people and that cases of severe illness due to the virus continue to decline.

Elections Canada preparing

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Elections Canada said the agency will adopt several public health measures to ensure voter safety in a mid-pandemic election.

The agency said poll workers will be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning will be done on surfaces every 30 to 60 minutes and physical distancing will be required at all polling stations. There will also be only one poll worker at each desk.

Whether voters will be required to wear masks while voting will depend on the province or territory, Elections Canada said.

"To maintain safe environments, we will encourage electors to wear a mask even in places where a province, territorial or region does not require them," the email reads. "We will require electors to wear masks where they are required by province, territory or region (except for electors who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons)."

It said Elections Canada is also prepared to process up to 5 million mail-in ballots, though it expects most voters will cast their ballots in person.

The agency also expects difficulties in recruiting poll workers.

"Recruitment is always a challenge. In the last general election, we recruited 230,000 poll workers, which was short of our target," the email reads. "Recruitment in a pandemic and without the benefit of a fixed election date will be even more difficult. For this reason, we are taking extra steps, including a more comprehensive national advertising campaign."

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