TORONTO — Ontario has seen a spike in demand for COVID-19 jabs since announcing a provincial vaccine certificate program, the health minister said Thursday.
The system – detailed a day earlier – will require Ontarians to show proof of inoculation to access some non-essential services, such as theatres, gyms and restaurants, starting on Sept. 22. It's aimed at boosting immunization rates and reducing risks for the unvaccinated.
"Great news!" Health Minister Christine Elliott tweeted on Thursday. "Yesterday, bookings on the provincial system more than doubled. Today, we're already seeing thousands more Ontarians roll up their sleeves, nearly half of whom are receiving their first dose."
A spokeswoman for Elliott said there were 7,125 COVID-19 vaccine appointments booked through the provincial portal alone on Wednesday, compared to 3,479 a day earlier, before the certificate plan was announced.
The province's vaccine booking system is one of several avenues available to secure a shot – residents can also book through their public health unit, at pharmacies, or get the shot at pop-up clinics.
Spokeswoman Alexandra Hilkene said that as of 1 p.m. on Thursday, 12,398 people had received a COVID-19 shot, compared to 9,391 by the same time the previous day.
Of those who got the shots on Thursday, 5,957 were receiving a first dose, compared to 3,764 on Wednesday.
The scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Table, which advises the province on the pandemic, said the vaccine certificate will be an important tool to help keep case counts low.
Without vaccination rates above 85 per cent, Ontarians will have to reduce their contacts to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels from the roughly 80 per cent they're at now, the science table has found.
Dr. Peter Juni said Ontario was at that 70 per cent point during Step 2 of its reopening plan. The province is currently in Step 3 of the plan and further reopening has been paused.
"Our Step 2 was still case neutral, meaning the case numbers didn't go up, they didn't go down. We were OK," he said. "What did we add? We added gyms, indoor dining and some other settings, and that's what caused case numbers to increase."
Those are the areas being targeted by the vaccine certificate system, to ensure people who aren't protected against COVID-19 reduce their high-risk contacts, Juni said.
But not everyone is on board with the program.
A crowd gathered outside Toronto police headquarters on Thursday, chanting slogans such as "our body, our choice."
John Martin, who was at the protest with his wife and two daughters, said he and his family aren't vaccinated and aren't planning on it.
"It's our right to choose," he said, adding that if he won't be allowed into certain establishments, "it's a small price to pay."
Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician in Toronto, said the anti-vaccine protests are emotionally draining.
"Health workers are already emotionally burnt out, and working extremely long hours, not being able to see their families and not being able to look after themselves" he said. "So in that context, having to deal with protests or seeing protests happen in front of a health-care setting, is just distressing."
Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist, said he felt doctors were being targeted by the anti-vaccine movement.
"Health workers have already gone through so much, and continue to go through so much during this pandemic - we are dealing with compassion fatigue and moral injury, and this extra pressure and negative energy looming over (us) is just not fair."
Some people are already trying to get around the vaccine certificate through a provision that offers an exemption for those who cannot receive the shot for medical reasons, the province's medical regulator said.
Dr. Nancy Whitmore, CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, said doctors must be judicious about handing out exemptions.
"Given the level of fatigue we are all feeling – health-care workers in particular – we all need to do whatever we can to mitigate any further spread of COVID-19," said Whitmore, who is also the college's registrar.
There are very few legitimate medical reasons not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, she said.
They include an allergist- or immunologist-confirmed severe allergy or anaphylactic reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or to any of its components, and a diagnosis of myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle – and pericarditis, inflammation of the sac around the heart, after receiving an mRNA vaccine.
"Given the rarity of these exceptions, and in light of the fact that vaccines have been proven to be both safe and effective, any notes written for patients who qualify for a medical exemption need to clearly specify the reason they cannot be vaccinated," Whitmore wrote.
On a frequently asked questions page, the college tells doctors they have the right to refuse giving a medical exemption to the vaccine if there's no basis for one.
Roughly 83 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and older have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 76.6 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Daily infections have been rising steadily, with 865 new cases reported in Ontario Thursday. Elliott said 692 of those were in people who are not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.
There are 320 Ontarians hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 162 in the ICU.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2021.
Nicole Thompson and Rhythm Sachdeva, The Canadian Press