Quebec Premier François Legault said he will meet with public health officials Monday night to discuss whether the province’s vaccine passport system should remain in use.
Speaking to reporters in Longueuil, Que., Legault said Health Minister Christian Dubé plans to “get rid of the pass as soon as we get the OK from public health.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Monday the vaccine passport system in his province will be lifted on March 1. Alberta and Saskatchewan have already ended proof of vaccination requirements, while the Manitoba government also plans to lift its vaccine passport requirement in March.
Legault said he still needs approval from public health officials.
“We want to remove most of the measures, but we have to be careful because of the hospital situation,” he said. He added that continued relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions will give those who oppose the measures less to protest about.
Benoit Barbeau, a biology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in virology, said he thinks the vaccine passport system remains justifiable, but that it may be time to remove it in a matter of weeks.
“There’s still room for the use of the vaccine passport now, but as we can see a continuous reduction in the number of hospitalizations, eventually, it will need to be removed,” he said.
While vaccine passports were initially intended to encourage people to get vaccinated and prevent transmission of the virus, he said the main reason to keep them in place now is to protect unvaccinated people, who are at higher risk of hospitalization, from being exposed to the virus in places like gyms and bars at a time when hospitalization rates remain high.
Due to waning immunity from the vaccine, those with two doses — the number required under Quebec’s vaccine passport system — are less protected against infection than they were when the system was introduced in September.
Vaccines, however, remain highly effective against serious illness and death.
“Your protection against being infected, especially as an adult, versus an unvaccinated person has greatly been reduced. It’s not zero but it’s definitely below 25 per cent,” Barbeau said, taking into account the average length of time since Quebec residents received their second doses and the dominance of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in Quebec.
“So it’s a quarter versus what it used to be, which was 89 per cent.”
But Barbeau said he doesn’t think it makes sense to expand the vaccine passport to require three doses of vaccine, as the additional protection offered by the third dose will likely have worn off by the time the next wave of the novel coronavirus arrives in Quebec.
Jörg Hermann Fritz, an immunology professor at McGill University, said he’s uncomfortable with the sudden change in the way politicians are talking about restrictions in the wake of protests across the country, given that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Quebec remain high.
“Until two weeks ago, or so, we had a strong push to make everything more restrictive,” he said, referring to the expansion of the vaccine passport system to provincially owned liquor and cannabis stores on Jan. 18 and to big-box stores on Jan. 24.
Fitz said he thinks it’s puzzling that the passport has not yet been expanded to three doses of vaccine.
“The scientific data is clear: a third shot massively increases your protection against being infected with Omicron and being able to transmit the virus to other people,” he said.
However, he said there’s a lack of studies about the transmissibility of the various strains of the virus by people with different vaccination statuses, particularly in places like Quebec, where limited access to PCR testing has made it difficult to evaluate the level of transmission in the community.
Earlier on Monday, Quebec reported 17 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus and a rise of 14 COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Health Department said 2,095 patients were in hospital with the disease and that the number of people in intensive care declined by four, to 136.
Gyms and spas were allowed to reopen at half capacity across Quebec Monday, after they were closed in December to reduce transmission of the Omicron variant.