The federal government plans to change its definition of what it means to be fully protected against COVID-19 to reflect advice that a number of health experts have been recommending for months, including Canada’s top doctors.
Currently, federal employees are considered fully vaccinated if they have two doses of one of Health Canada’s approved vaccines.
On Friday, Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters during a briefing the COVID-19 vaccine efficiency wanes significantly over time, from 50 to 80 per cent effectiveness down to 20 per cent or lower six months after the second dose.
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That’s why she has recommended that any official language encouraging Canadians to be vaccinated should not emphasize a specific number of doses, but rather say Canadians should be “up to date” with their COVID-19 vaccines.
“(A) mandate is a policy decision that takes account many different factors and it’s up to the policymakers at this time to make that difficult decision. But I would always be going with recommending ‘up to date,’” Tam said Friday, referencing the preferred policy wording.
“The difficulty, I think, right now is that the federal definition of vaccine mandates for administrative or travel or other purposes is not up to date. And I am encouraging everybody to adopt the definition.”
On Tuesday, federal cabinet ministers said they indeed plan to implement this policy change.
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“Although two doses still protects significantly well against severe disease and death, two doses are not enough now to protect against infection and transmission. That is why we are transitioning now to an ‘up-to-date’ vaccination definition of what it means to be adequately protected against COVID-19,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Tuesday during a press conference in Ottawa.
“Fully protected with two doses doesn’t work anymore.”
However it could take several weeks or months to implement this policy change, due to work that must be done with provinces and territories, who also have responsibility for health policy, Duclos said.
He sidestepped questions on why it has taken so long to commit to this change, even as health experts have been recommending this update for several months.
On Tuesday, Ottawa also announced it is pausing its vaccine mandate for employees in the public service, and will no longer require employees in the federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors to be fully vaccinated, effective June 20.
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That means civil servants who were placed on unpaid leave due to a failure to disclose their vaccination status or a refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 can return to work as of that date, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier announced during the same press conference Tuesday.
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However, the ministers warned vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 health measures being lifted in recent days and weeks could return if the situation changes in Canada, particularly if a variant concerns emerges and begins to spread.
Duclos said health officials plan to spend the summer months shifting their focus to trying to encourage more Canadians to get vaccinated and boosted. He cited data provided by Tam Friday that demonstrated that although the vaccine doesn’t provide the same level of immunity against contracting Omicron variants of the virus, it does decrease severe outcomes and hospitalization rates.
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“We will do that because we know (in) the summertime … there will be fewer cases, fewer hospitalizations,” Duclos said. “That’s the right time for Canadians not only to pause and deserve a summer break, but also to think of how to better be prepared individually and collectively for the fall season.”
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