Local medical officers of health look to province for Ontario-wide COVID vaccine certificate system

WATCH ABOVE: All local medical officers of health across Ontario are calling on the provincial government to implement a vaccine passport. Caryn Lieberman explains.

Mounting calls continue for a province-wide COVID-19 vaccine certificate from local medical officers of health across Ontario who want to see a universal system when it comes to providing proof of vaccination to employers, for events or to gain entrance inside businesses.

A group representing Ontario’s public health units says it is exploring regional approaches to COVID-19 vaccination policies in the absence of provincial direction.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, head of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies, says the group wants the province to bring in a vaccine certificate system, which would limit access to non-essential activities to those who are fully immunized.

He says the association has written to the province’s chief medical officer with recommendations on a vaccine certificate system, among other issues. Without provincial direction, Roumeliotis says health units are looking at regional approaches instead.

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At a press conference for the City of Mississauga on Thursday morning, Peel Region’s top doctor Dr. Lawrence Loh re-iterated the need for an accessible system that businesses and companies can use to verify proof of vaccination.

“ were unanimously, I would say, in agreement that a provincial solution is desirable for consistency and for application,” Loh said. “And I think many of the medical officers of health certainly view a time-limited vaccine certificate as an opportunity for us to get through this turbulent period.”

“I think the reality is in the past we’ve used broad closure and curtailment measures because everyone was susceptible and nobody was vaccinated,” Loh continued. “Given our current state, and our situation right now, it is clear we already have now different segments which we can use to our advantage to try keep our communities open with a proof of vaccination system.”

The provincial government maintains there is a proof of vaccine receipt Ontarians can digitally download or print from the provincial portal.

“This version of the vaccine receipt contains a watermark and a digital signature to deter forgery,” Alexandra Hilkene, a ministry of health spokesperson, said in a statement.

However, Roumeliotis and others have argued, that those receipts could be forged and are difficult to read.

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Other provinces such as British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec have announced plans to implement or have already implemented a COVID-19 passport or certification system that can be used in those individual provinces.

Quebec has developed an app called “VaxiCode” that is available to its residents for many non-essential services that require proof of vaccination.

“I think the fourth wave has created a scenario where we are really looking down the barrel of a very dire situation in Ontario,” said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician.

“There are a lot of things that we need to do but a really big step would be vaccine passports, it’s not a panacea, it’s not perfect,” Dosani said. “We realize that there is resistance in different ways to the vaccine passport program but the upside is huge.”

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Global News reached out to all 34 local public health units across Ontario, many of which said a vaccine type of certification or “passport” would be best implemented by the province.

“KFL&A Public Health’s position at this time is that a vaccine passport would be best implemented at the provincial level to avoid inconsistency across Ontario,” a spokesperson said.

Toronto Public Health, Durham Region Health Department, Halton Region Public Health, Ottawa Public Health, Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, Peterborough Public Health, Waterloo Region Public Health, Sudbury Public Health, North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit and Renfrew County and District Health Unit all echoed the same position that a vaccine “passport” would be best province-led and for consistency.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health said it “supports the use of tools and vaccine policies which can help to drive vaccination rates and keep our local businesses open and safe. We support a provincial approach to avoid regional differences, however in the interim we are exploring how to utilize COVax vaccine receipts locally.”

However, Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said there is not a provincial consensus amongst medical officers of health when it comes to vaccine passports. Windsor-Essex said it will continue to engage with public health colleagues to “review and consider” strategies to mitigate COVID-19 and Delta.

Southwestern Public Health said it would like to see a “broad and coordinated approach to interventions that support vaccination, including provincial policy levers.”

Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit said it does not plan to issue vaccine certificates, a spokesperson said; “This is personal health information and each person can download their vaccine certificate from the provincial website to be used as needed; anything beyond this will ideally be organized by the province.”

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The Northwestern Health Unit, Middlesex-London Health Unit and Timiskaming Health Unit said they are not planning their own vaccine verification system.

Meanwhile, Niagara Region’s local medical officer of health Dr. Hirji said a regional approach to vaccine validation would be less challenging but “would still create inconsistencies.”

“A local vaccine credential would create enormous challenges,” Hirji said. “Niagara residents who work in another area would be unable to use Niagara’s credential for showing proof to their employer; that person would be unable to use that credential to gain access to restaurant for a work lunch.”

“In regional discussions, we have identified logistical issues around data sharing and privacy which would make this very complex,” Hirji said.

Hamilton’s public health unit also said it is exploring local options to protect its residents but said a policy of proof of vaccine led by the Ontario government would be best for consistency, similar to those in B.C. and Quebec.

Simcoe-Muskoka reiterated similar sentiments that “it would be prudent for the province to consider and further investigate the potential for this approach.”

York Region said discussions are ongoing for vaccine certificates in the area.

“I urge the Ontario government to consider a standardized provincial approach to vaccine certificates/passports; having different apps from every health unit will not be a viable option,” Dr. Karim Kurji said in a statement.

“I hope that is the direction to be followed with consultation and in partnership with the business community, government officials and Medical Officers of Health,” Kurji added.

Other local public health units were contacted on their position on a local or provincial type of vaccine certification but did not hear back by the time of publication.

— With files from Global News’ Caryn Lieberman & The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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