Nova Scotians are getting mixed messages about the proof of vaccine policy set to come into effect October 4, as new premier Tim Houston says the province needs time to finalize a number of details for its immunization record plan.
“We must maintain the cautious approach that has kept Nova Scotia safe,” Houston said during Wednesday's COVID briefing. “And part of that cautious approach will be a proof of vaccine policy.”
The list hasn't been finalized, but bars, restaurants, movies, concerts and sports events are among activities that will require proof of vaccination. “Starting on October 4, if you can't show you’re fully vaccinated you will not be able to participate in these non-essential activities," chief medical officer of health Robert Strang said Wednesday.
Doctor Strang stressed that no one is being “forced to get a vaccine,” and essential services like hospitals, grocery stores and public schools will serve unvaccinated people.
Provincial officials are careful not to call the new program a vaccine passport, likely because of the term's use among anti-vaxxers. The name may be the only part of the policy that's solid.
Thursday morning Strang told CBC the vax record policy will not apply to those working at non-essential businesses like restaurants and bars.
Hours later Houston said the opposite. "We’re not talking about any type of mandatory vaccine policy, but certainly people working in those establishments will be held to the same rules as the proprietors," the premier said following Thursday's cabinet meeting.
When asked about the conflicting messages, new health minister Michelle Thompson said she'd have to "side step" the question until she spoke with Strang and Houston.
"What I will say is that between the announcement and the implementation of the vaccine policy, there are a number of questions we have to answer and we gave that space and time so we’re able discuss those things," Thompson said. Those questions include the potential legal and ethical implications of requiring vaccines in workplaces.
"Time is necessary for a couple reasons, to give Nova Scotians the opportunity to get vaccinated... Time is necessary to allow for working out some of the additional things being raised here today," Houston said.
When asked about potential enforcement and penalties for institutions that don't follow the proof of vax policy, Houston said it'll take a couple weeks to finalize that, "but as I sit here today there is no enforcement team... if we start to sense that they'll be some kind of issue.... we'll address that."
At the moment it's not clear what the proof of vaccine record will look like or which businesses are considered non-essential. Strang named concerts, movies, sports events, bars and restaurants as the types of spaces which will likely require proof of vaccine for entry.
Houston says reception from industry about the policy has so far been positive, and the province will support the businesses who will enforce it come Oct. 4.
There is expected to be a new, standardized proof of vaccine program launched by the province before the policy comes into effect. But so far there are no details on what it will look like.
“We are working on a digital record for all Nova Scotians and on a solution to integrate doses received outside the provincial program,” Strang said Wednesday at the Houstrang COVID briefing. “And we'll have more to share on that soon.”
In the meantime, or if the launch is delayed, Nova Scotians can use the emailed vaccine record sent by CanImmunize as proof. Those who were vaccinated in other jurisdictions can show whatever regional vaccine record they were given.
Nova Scotia hit 72 percent fully vaccinated Thursday, and needs to reach 75 percent before moving to the next stage of reopening. At the rate vaccinations have been happening recently in Nova Scotia, it would be impossible to reach the 75 percent target by next Wednesday, September 15. Over the last eight days of vaccinations—from Tuesday, August 31 to Wednesday, September 8—the province's fully vaccinated population increased by almost one percent, from 71.05 percent to 72 percent. At that rate, getting from 72 percent to just 73 percent would take eight days, and the Wednesday target is now just six days away.
However, Strang said he’s “fully confident” Nova Scotia will proceed to Phase 5 on Wednesday. Houston repeated that confidence Thursday, and said "there's every indication" that the vaccine target will be reached in the next six days. If the vaccination rate increases sharply over the coming days, it will be apparent from daily provincial COVID reports.
Speaking of increasing vaccinations, at the Houstrang briefing the doctor spoke to those who have yet to get a vaccine.
“I want to be very clear, we are not requiring anyone to be vaccinated, you will remain having a choice,” he said. “But we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken countless lives. And an individual's right to choose has to be balanced with our collective responsibility to keep one another safe. And I believe this policy provides an appropriate balance."