The lifting of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for travellers in Canada has come at the right time as cases are declining, experts say, but they stressed the need to continue masking on trains and planes to prevent future waves.
The federal government announced Tuesday an end to COVID-19 vaccine requirements for domestic and outbound international travellers, allowing unvaccinated Canadians to board trains and planes. The mandate, which had been in place since October 2021, will be lifted on June 20.
“I think it’s reasonable to do it at this point,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease physician at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
This is because the number of COVID-19 cases being imported into the country are low at this point of the pandemic, he said.
“Vaccine mandates … don’t really have a big role to play right now,” Evans said, adding that maintaining high vaccination rates in the country is most important in controlling those COVID-19 cases numbers.
Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering and immunology at the University of Toronto, said while the new policy is in line with current COVID-19 trends in the country, there is also a risk attached to it.
“We can expect potentially some small jumps in case numbers, but hopefully it’s all manageable,” he told Global News.
The latest announcement comes amid growing calls from the travel industry to scrap COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates, as airports across the country continue to experience long lines and delays.
Last week, random COVID-19 testing of incoming vaccinated passengers at Canadian airports was also temporarily removed.
Earlier in April, the federal government eliminated pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirement for fully vaccinated travellers.
COVID-19 cases are on the decline, although hospitalizations remain high across the country, according the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Marianne Levitksy, an occupational hygienist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto, said it is not a good idea to be lifting vaccine mandates amid the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant and subvariants.
Levitksy said people are more likely to be infected if they are unvaccinated.
Do vaccine mandates work?
There is some data to suggest that unvaccinated people pose a risk of infection to others.
A study based on data from Ontario published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in April, showed that attack rates among those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 were highest when they were randomly mixed within the unvaccinated subpopulation. They were lowest when they were surrounded by others who are also vaccinated.
Some experts agree that vaccine mandates have been an effective tool in controlling COVID-19 spread.
This is because vaccines can not only help prevent infection, they can also clear the infection more quickly, making it less likely for an infected person to pass the virus on to others and reducing the likelihood of virus replication, said Khan.
Levitsky said if people are more likely to get sick because they have not been vaccinated, that will increase the risk of exposure for others.
There are no changes for travellers coming into Canada, who are still required to be fully vaccinated, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said during a news conference on Tuesday.
“Also, travellers on federally-regulated planes and trains still need to wear a mask,” he said.
In the absence of a vaccine mandate, masking remains an important and effective tool in controlling spread, both Khan and Levitsky said.
“I think you’ll always have a high risk of contracting (the virus) in a closed environment when people are very close to each other,” said Khan.
“Wearing masks in high-risk situations, are very, very easy ways to prevent transmission.”
Both Pfizer and Moderna are currently testing in late stage clinical trials an updated version of their COVID-19 vaccines to better target the Omicron variant and its sub-lineages.
If and when these are rolled out, Canada may have to reconsider its vaccine mandate once again, experts say.
“I think that whatever decision is being made now, it will likely be revisited once these new updated vaccines go through regulatory processing,” Khan said. “So we can expect some further conversation around this.”
Evans agreed, saying if the new vaccines show better protection against Omicron and subvariants, it may be relevant to start including those in a requirement for vaccination, not just for travellers but for all Canadians in general.