A health-care worker holds up a sign signalling she needs more COVID-19 vaccines at the 'hockey hub' mass vaccination facility at the CAA Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Experts divided on easing COVID-19 rules for fully vaccinated adults

As provinces accelerate their efforts to get their populations fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there are calls for the federal government to issue clear guidance on what people can do once they receive both shots.

Some politicians and experts have said Ottawa should provide a framework spelling out which behaviours are considered safe for vaccinated adults, similar to what was issued by the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but opinion is divided on whether it’s a good idea.

In mid-May, the CDC eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated Americans, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. It also provided a list of activities that are safe for vaccinated people but could be risky for those who are unvaccinated.

On Monday, Ontario’s Health Department said that while its reopening road map creates province-specific advice, it would welcome federal guidelines for individuals.

“Much like the CDC released guidelines in the U.S., we continue to urge Health Canada and (the Public Health Agency of Canada) to release guidance for fully vaccinated individuals,” Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in an email.

Azim Shariff, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, says data out of the United States is showing that removing restrictions for fully vaccinated people can work as an incentive for hesitant people to get the shot. “Given how important it is to get as large a percentage of the population vaccinated as possible, there is value in making use of this incentive,” he wrote in an email.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, believes the federal government should be offering some general direction about what people can and cannot do once they’re vaccinated with two doses.

However, he believes more people need to get their second dose and more data on vaccine effectiveness against variants is needed before large gatherings can resume and restrictions on mask-wearing can be lifted, even for the fully vaccinated. “Some of these guidelines assume that the vaccines will maintain their effectiveness against variants, and I think this is still an open question,” he said in a phone interview. “‘I think it’s a bit too early to have that leap of faith right now.”

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Center, argues that creating a separate set of restrictions for people who are fully vaccinated is a risky idea. He says the guidelines issued in the United States are difficult to enforce and have led many people to abandon masks and distancing, whether they are vaccinated or not.

“We have to balance the fact that we are only at 12-and-a-half per cent fully vaccinated, that a lot of people have selective hearing, and if the federal government announces their plan too early, you risk a little bit of pandemonium,” he said in a phone interview.

Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, says the emergence of new variants, such as the Delta variant that some believe may be more resistant to vaccines, suggests that immunization rates are just one part of the puzzle.

“If you look at highly vaccinated populations like the U.K.,they’ve seen their numbers go up in the past month, despite their vaccination, just because of the new variants that have gotten into the mix there,” he said.

Hoption Cann said the system of letting provinces set their own health rules has worked well, and he believes the federal government should focus on travel and border restrictions.

In a statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada reiterated its previous advice stating that restrictions could begin easing when local disease activity is low enough and vaccine rates reach 75 per cent of eligible residents for a first dose and 20 per cent for a second.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada will update its advice about lifting or tightening public health measures as we gather new evidence,” the statement read. The federal government has also said it expects to ease quarantine rules for fully vaccinated travellers entering Canada in early July.

While most provinces and territories keep the same restrictions for all citizens, some have slowly begun setting different standards for fully vaccinated individuals.

Manitoba announced last week that fully vaccinated residents will be allowed to travel within Canada without being subject to the province’s mandatory 14-day self-isolation period upon their return. Similarly, Nunavut has said that fully vaccinated travellers will be free to travel in and out of the territory without quarantining in a government-run isolation hotel and without a COVID-19 test.

And Quebec has said that as of June 25, people who are fully vaccinated with two doses no longer need to wear masks or keep a distance from others at private home gatherings.

Meanwhile, provinces continued to ease restrictions on Monday as vaccine rates progressed. Ontario announced it would reopen its borders with Quebec and Manitoba on Wednesday, while Quebec said it would also remove border controls.

Quebec lowered its pandemic alert for many regions, including Montreal and Quebec City, allowing limited indoor gatherings to resume and crowd limits to increase at funerals, weddings and religious services.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan announced they were nearing the vaccine threshold needed to further ease restrictions, while Manitoba expanded second vaccine dose booking eligibility to anyone who received a first vaccine dose on or before May 10.