Chance of vaccine mandates ending in January 'next to zero', Ontario science table head says

The head of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table is not optimistic that vaccine certificate mandates will begin to go away early in the new year.

When the provincial government announced its roadmap for gradually reopening the province through the fall and into the spring of 2022, it said proof of vaccination requirements for places like restaurants, sports facilities and casinos could begin to be gradually lifted around Jan. 17. The government said this would be based on pandemic trends at the time, following Christmas and the return to classrooms.

However, Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told Newstalk 580 CFRA's "Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron" that he does not believe that will realistically be the case.

"When I look at what's happening right now and when I see what's happening in Europe, the probability that we drop them in mid-January is next to zero per cent," he said. "We'll have just experienced the Christmas bump. We will be challenged a bit. Things hopefully go better with the third dose rollout … so, taken together, this just means the certificates are here to stay for longer than January."

Jüni has said in the past that the certificates are meant to be temporary and he still believes they will be phased out in Ontario, but it will likely be spring when that happens.

"Vaccine certificates plus masks in spring. I would bet on that," he said.

The province says it intends to start lifting remaining public health measures around the end of March 2022, including indoor mask mandates and any remaining vaccine certificate requirements.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said in October that by March, many of the province's health plans will have come to fruition.

"By March we hope we've maximized our immunization strategy in Ontario that we have more Ontarians immunized to the point that this virus doesn't have a host in which it can reproduce. We'll have our third dose strategies will be completed. Our immunization strategy for children from five to 11 will have been completed, and we'll have a very good point to be able to look at the data to review a safe opening for all of Ontario," he said.

Premier Doug Ford also mentioned that there needs to be some reward to Ontarians for keeping up the behaviours that keep the worst of the pandemic at bay.

"It has to be a two-way street. You know, there has to be benefits to the people across Ontario to see all the hard work that they've done and they're able to see the difference. But let me reinforce the word cautious. We have always been cautious; I'm going to be super cautious. If we do not see the numbers in a stable place, we just aren't going to do it. It's as simple as that," he said. 

In a statement Wednesday, the Ministry of Health said the province is anticipating a bump in cases this winter, hospital capacity remains stable and active cases are lower than the national average. These will all factor in to the decisions around easing restrictions.

"There’s no question that the months ahead will require continued vigilance, with many jurisdictions struggling as they continue to face the fourth wave of COVID-19. That’s why Ontario continues to take a different approach by maintaining strong public health measures such as indoor masking and proof of vaccination requirements to access higher-risk settings. We will continue to monitor key public health and health care indicators to keep Ontarians safe and ensure that public health and workplace safety measures continue to be lifted safely," the statement said.

Mandates kept virus at bay in Ontario, Jüni says

In Europe, cases are surging. Cases are up 36 per cent in the Netherlands, Italy is imposing new restrictions on unvaccinated people, and Germany is approaching 100,000 deaths from the virus. Protests have erupted over virus rules in several European countries in recent days. 

Jüni says Ontario has fared much better because of the mandates that remain in place but he stresses that the pandemic isn't over and a post-Christmas bump in cases is inevitable.

"There will be a bump. That's for sure," he said.

LISTEN: The Scientific Director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory table tells @radioKristy the chances of doing away with vaccine passports in January are "next to zero."

Dr. Peter Jüni says the spring is more likely. #ottnews #onpoli pic.twitter.com/5MS2TdGShO

— 580 CFRA (@CFRAOttawa) November 24, 2021

The key to avoiding a severe increase, he says, is to rein in behaviours that put oneself at risk and to get more people vaccinated.

"I hope that we all get a little bit more disciplined with masking, even a bit more people vaccinated, that the vaccine rollout with kids goes well, so that we go into the beginning of Christmas with a relatively stable case count," he said.

According to the science table, cases in Ontario are doubling every 36 days, which has improved in recent weeks. Earlier in November, cases were doubling approximately every two weeks.

Jüni is also urging anyone eligible for a third dose to seek one out ahead of the holidays.

"We still have a really miserable low uptake of third doses and it's tremendously important for people above 70, for example, people who are immunocompromised or people who've had more than eight or nine months since the second dose, they need to get the third dose now and there's still a lot of time before Christmas."

Earlier this month, Jüni suggested capacity limits may need to be "fine-tuned" in some settings. He said Wednesday dealing with it on a local level is the correct strategy.

"We can fine-tune in places that are really struggling, and there are a few in the province that we need to worry about," he said. "I don't think it's necessary to do that at the provincial level."