Coronavirus in Quebec: Vaccination passport to be gradually phased out

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Quebec’s vaccine passport will be gradually phased out by March 14, the province’s health minister announced Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, the passport will no longer be required to access big box stores, cannabis stores, or liquor stores. It will no longer be required at places of worship and funerals as of Feb. 21.

“We are removing it gradually as we live to learn with the virus,” said Health Minister Christian Dubé.

The vaccine passport remains in place for travel abroad, and Dubé said it may be used in the future if another COVID-19 wave hits. 

“If I had some advice: keep it on your phone,” said Dubé.

He said the removal of the passport coincides with the arrival of large quantities of Pfizer’s Paxlovid COVID-19 antiviral pill, which he said will help protect the unvaccinated and the most vulnerable from the disease.

The federal government announced that PCR test requirements for fully vaccinated travellers will no longer be required as of Feb. 28. They can opt for a rapid antigen test from the country they are coming from. Travellers may still be selected for random testing upon arrival.

Unvaccinated travellers will still be required to be tested on arrival in Canada and must quarantine for two weeks.

SITUATION IMPROVING IN QUEBEC

The news comes after Quebec’s COVID-19 hospitalization and other numbers have dropped in recent weeks.

“The projections are going in the right direction and the situation is improving gradually,” said acting Quebec director of public health Dr. Luc Boileau.

“All of this leads us to believe that we can go to a certain return to normalcy.” 

Dubé praised the vaccine passport as a measure that helped Quebec return to a sense of normalcy since the end of summer 2021. About 600,000 Quebecers have been vaccinated since it went into effect, Boileau said.

The Omicron mutation changed things, he said.

Quebecers were only required to have two doses of COVID-19 vaccine to obtain a passport. And two doses don’t generate the same protection against Omicron as they did against Delta, he explained.

“The situation is different with Omicron and in this perspective, it’s important that people remain prudent and get their third dose,” he said.

The government couldn’t expand the passport to three doses because it was too soon to do so — nearly two million Quebecers have caught the virus since the beginning of December, representing nearly 25 per cent of the population, according to public health estimates. Boileau said those people should wait eight to twelve weeks from their infection before they get a third dose.

By the time those two million Quebecers get third doses, the current Omicron wave is expected to be finished, he added.

The interim health director said the Omicron subvariant of the novel coronavirus, dubbed BA.2 by scientists, has been detected in the Montreal area and is composing about 10 to 15 per cent of new cases.

While the new mutation is about 30 per cent more transmissible than the Omicron variant, it is not more severe, experts say.

The minister added that the state of emergency will likely be lifted March 14 as well.

“There are several measures that are in play currently that we still need,” said Dubé.

PUBLIC HEALTH SHOULD CONTINUE MONITORING: EXPERT

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease physician at the Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said withdrawing the vaccine passport entirely removes the incentive to get vaccinated, which he said was crucial in getting through the Omicron wave of the pandemic.

“The reason that we made it through Omicron without even worse damage in our general population, let alone with our at-risk populations, like people who are immunocompromised, was largely because of vaccines,” he told CTV News. 

One of his concerns is that removing the vaccine passport while not making PCR testing widely accessible to the general public will create blind spots for public health departments of “early indicators of problems” in the community.

“By the time you see numbers change in those light indicators, that implies… events that happened two or three weeks before,” he said, adding that some form of adequate monitoring should continue.

The monitoring, he said, could be in the form of widespread access to PCR tests and testing of wastewater for the presence of COVID-19, which was scrapped in December due to lack of funding from the province.

PCR tests have been reserved for health-care workers, first responders, and other at-risk populations since January.

Oughton said he hopes that vaccination centres will remain accessible to the public and education campaigns about vaccination will continue.

“At the end of the day, after two years of this pandemic, just because we’re very tired of dealing with it and everybody is certainly very tired, that doesn’t mean the virus has suddenly decided to go away,” he said.

“If we [learned] nothing else, you’d think we would have learned that this virus will always find ways to surprise us. We should be now prepared for that,” he added.

“If we get surprised yet again after two years, that’s on us for not having learned those lessons.”

MASKS STILL REQUIRED

Dubé said mask-wearing remains important and the emergency measures allow him to hire staff at clinics and renew contracts quickly, which are still important powers. 

“The current situation does not allow us to lift the rules that have to do with the wearing of the mask,” said Dubé. “The care system is still fragile.”

He said a revision of recommendations may be forthcoming in mid-March.

The province reported a spike in deaths due to COVID-19 on Tuesday with 56 deaths, along with 1,973 more infections.

Hospitalizations, however, continued to drop, with 43 fewer patients receiving care in Quebec hospitals on Tuesday compared to 24 hours ago, for a total of 2,052. Intensive care numbers also dropped by four for a total of 132.

— With files from The Canadian Press.

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