Students and staff at the University of Saskatchewan have a choice to make when arriving on campus this fall – either prove that they have received two full doses of COVID-19 vaccine, or submit to twice-weekly rapid testing for the virus. It’s not technically a vaccine mandate, but U of S president Peter Stoicheff says the policy is as close to one as they felt comfortable with.
When Dr. Stoicheff and other leaders at the university made that policy this summer, Saskatchewan had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. The idea of bringing a full contingent of faculty, staff and students back to campus – nearly 30,000 people in total – without a vaccine policy in place was unthinkable. An average day at the U of S in Saskatoon is like “a [Rough]riders game at Mosaic Stadium, except that we’re indoors,” said Dr. Stoicheff. “This is probably the largest congregation of people in the smallest area in the whole province.”
Across Canada, school officials have weighed the pros and cons of mandating vaccines, just like Dr. Stoicheff. But rather than one uniform order, each institution has come to their own recommendation with input from federal and provincial health authorities.
At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., proof of vaccination is needed to access services like student housing, but not the campus in general. Officials at McGill University decided that until vaccines are provincially mandated, they cannot mandate them on their campus. But McGill, like all universities in Quebec, is enforcing masking and distancing policies as per provincial requirements. The University of Manitoba is requiring everyone to be fully vaccinated unless there is a medical exemption.
Yukon University hasn’t seen a need to put a mandate in place, as the territory has seen much lower rates of infection than the rest of the country. The school will still be screening students for symptoms and mandating masks, which Janet Welch, vice-president academic and provost, said is the right balance. Additionally, Yukon U has looked into using rapid testing on campus, but has run into issues trying to source tests, and is working with the territory’s chief medical officer to find a solution.
So what’s the right way forward? Should schools even bother with these kinds of policies if they differ so greatly from institution to institution? According to epidemiologists, while they won’t solve every problem, any vaccine policy is better than none.
“If the province has decided, based on community spread, that we need a [vaccine passport] to eat at a restaurant, and you have to limit the number of people who can get together in a social setting to six people at a table, why in the world wouldn’t students who are going to go into a lecture hall with dozens or hundreds of people need the same measure of protection?” asked Kelly McNagny, an immunologist and professor at the University of British Columbia. He said encouraging students to get vaccinated doesn’t just help one individual but everyone else they may come into contact with, including immunocompromised people who may have a weakened response to the vaccine.
Mandating vaccines may be one of the best ways to control the spread of the virus, but can universities legally gather this information? Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said it’s unlikely that any arguments regarding privacy concerns would hold up in court. As long as universities provide appropriate alternatives for people who have medical exemptions, there aren’t any legal hurdles facing universities looking to mandate the vaccine.
Though a quick scroll on social media might indicate otherwise, Mr. Caulfield said there are very few privacy concerns when asking for vaccination status. The amount of information that schools are asking for is small and finite, said Mr. Caulfield, so arguments about privacy violations are akin to “legal fear mongering.”
Similarly, Mr. Caulfield said that withholding activities or access from people who are unvaccinated is not discriminatory. “[Being vaccinated] isn’t an immutable characteristic,” he explained. “This is a decision that individuals make, and decisions can have consequences. The whole point is to, in some respects, differentiate between people who are vaccinated and people who aren’t.”
For many experts, the main issue around vaccinations isn’t whether or not they should be required, but what proof will be accepted, and what the penalties will be for those who try to get around the rules. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto, is concerned about what could happen if people try to lie or find loopholes in the policy. “A tiny number of people will do this, but that’s all it takes with communicable disease,” warned Dr. Furness. He’s particularly worried about forgeries of vaccine documents, which can be easy to do in some cases.
Some universities are requiring physical proof of vaccination, generally in the form of provincial records. Others are simply allowing staff and students to affirm that they have been vaccinated, with no evidence required. That’s a situation that worries Dr. Furness. “What are the penalties for lying?” he asked. “I’d love to see some statements saying that would be reckless endangerment, or something equally serious [from the university.]”
Whether it’s a vaccine mandate, a policy, a guideline, or an order, many experts are in favour of using any and all tools that are available. Their only concern is that the mandates may not be strong enough to slow the spread of COVID-19.