David Staples: We’re caught between those who fear COVID too much much and those who fear it too little

Author of the article:

David Staples  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Sep 03, 2021  •  9 hours ago  •  3 minute read  •  120 Comments

NDP Leader Rachel Notley is proposing a vaccine passport that would allow fully vaccinated people to get on with all aspects of public life and not be forced to mask up in public, save for stores deemed
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel sent a letter to federal Conservative Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole asking him to weigh in on the province’s equalization referendum on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia file

NDP Leader Rachel Notley is pushing a vaccine passport for Albertans, a proposal that Premier Jason Kenney has resisted so far. He’s sticking with the plan for us to learn to live with the virus.

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But Kenney’s problem is big and it’s two-headed.

First, that the virus keeps surprising us and messing with us.

Israel, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, has had a massive spike of new cases and now has a hospitalization rate of 126 per million, seventh highest in the world.

Sweden, which gained worldwide attention for its reluctance to impose lockdown restrictions, is now at 24 per million, with Canada at 36 per million. But Alberta’s rate of 110 per million is approaching Israel’s rate.

The second issue is that some Albertans appear to fear the virus too little, while some fear it too much.

Ninety per cent of Albertans hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, but severe outcomes for the unvaccinated aren’t alarming them and aren’t driving huge numbers to sign up for first jabs. We’re getting just a trickle.

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One alternative is to stick with our new and relaxed measures, and allow the spread of the disease to build up acquired immunity in the unvaxxed population. This is essentially the Swedish approach and it has some merit. If folks refuse to get vaccinated, what other options do we have?

The problem is that if enough unvaccinated people get sick all at once this will threaten our health-care system. We could well be on this path right now.

As for those who fear the virus too much, that group is now treating COVID as the single greatest threat to all our children under the age of 12, the one cohort that can’t get vaccinated.

Kenney is working hard to answer these fears. In an online Q-and-A session, the Premier noted that children are “at infinitesimally low risk for severe outcomes. In fact, since COVID began in March of last year we have not had a single COVID-related fatality under the age of 20 in Alberta.”

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In our last flu season in 2019-20, we had more children hospitalized with the flu than we’ve had since COVID started in March 2020, Kenney also said.

There was no outcry of concern about children and the flu in 2019-20, no mandatory masking in schools, no major fears about flu deaths. Why such fear about COVID now?

I understand that parents have grave concerns about their children, but given the massive amount of harm to public health that flows out of stringent lockdown measures — including increased opioid and alcohol deaths, social isolation and mental health issues, learning loss in students, business closures and job losses, not to mention staggering government debt that will haunt us for a generation — we should be wary about outsized fears, which aren’t rooted in science or sound cost-benefit analysis. They might push us to demand drastic action when it’s not warranted.

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If our health-care system does wilt under this new pressure, Kenney may be forced to change his stance on vaccine passports, just as Premier Doug Ford did in Ontario.

Under Notley’s proposal, fully vaccinated people can get on with all aspects of public life and not be forced to mask up in public, save for stores deemed “essential,” such as grocery stores, pharmacies and retail. Unvaccinated people would have to mask up to go into essential services and would be temporarily banned from “non-essential” services such as restaurants, concerts and sporting events. The order would end as soon as key indicators, such as hospitalizations, drop.

The order will put pressure on people to get vaccinated. That’s a form of government coercion. But those truly committed to avoiding the jab can wait out this measure, as hard as that might be for them.

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And if we do need to take drastic steps to curb this outbreak, is it not more harmful to bring in a more general lockdown again? Won’t shutting down schools and businesses, for example, cause far more trouble for far more people? That’s how I see it.

My other concern about a vaccine passport is that in a city like Edmonton, lower-income neighbourhoods have significantly lower vaccination rates (as much as 15 per cent) than higher-income neighbourhoods. Such a passport will hammer down hardest on poorer and marginalized people.

With all that in mind, job one should be a ferocious push for new vaccinations and to build up hospital capacity. But if COVID hospitalizations keep shooting up, a limited vaccine passport, such as the NDP proposes, may be the least worst option.

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