With the Manitoba government poised to expand COVID-19 vaccination criteria to include people living or working in communities hit hardest by the disease, the province is relying on residents to be honest about their eligibility.
On Tuesday, a government spokesman confirmed Manitoba does not track how many people who booked a shot at mass vaccination or pop-up clinics were turned away because they were deemed ineligible for immunization.
People who do not meet the age criteria but are eligible because they work in congregate living settings or other prioritized sectors do not need to provide proof (such as a pay stub or employment record) at provincially-run clinics to receive their shot.
As such, the province said it does not know how many people may have taken advantage of the system and jumped the COVID-19 immunization queue by lying or booking an appointment in error.
"Eligibility of the individual is self-declared," a provincial spokesman said Tuesday. "We are confident the majority of Manitobans will respect the parameters as set within our eligibility rules."
The province did not make a member of the COVID-19 vaccine task force available for an interview.
"Eligibility of the individual is self-declared. We are confident the majority of Manitobans will respect the parameters as set within our eligibility rules." ‐ Provincial spokesman
Arthur Schafer, a professor at the University of Manitoba and founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said rules set out by public health officials to administer the COVID-19 vaccine need to be enforced.
When consequences for breaking the rules are lacking or unclear, public trust in the campaign can be threatened, he said Tuesday.
"If our government doesn’t establish eligibility criteria that seem fair to people, and if it doesn’t distribute the vaccine — this scarce, life-saving resource — honestly and according to those criteria, if it allows people to take advantage… then it risks undermining social cohesion and eroding public trust," Schafer said.
"So the stakes are high."
To be immunized in Manitoba, in general, a person must book an appointment online through the provincial portal or by calling its vaccine hotline.
If they do not meet age criteria, the applicant is asked if they work in a congregate setting or other prioritized work place, or if they self-identify as First Nations. Specific details about employment are not collected through the online portal.
A person must then declare the answers provided in the screening process are accurate and truthful. There is a notification providing false information is an offence, though the regulation is not specified and no penalties are listed.
“Given that the stakes are now higher, there should be regulations... there should be enforcement, even if it’s a small minority of cases.” –Arthur Schafer
Once at the immunization centre, staff only ask for a Manitoba health card to confirm identity and people must complete a consent form that specifies the reason for immunization. Vaccinations are also offered by pharmacists and physicians, who are expected to confirm the eligibility criteria of their clients.
The provincial spokesman said there will be no changes to the eligibility verification process moving forward, even as the province said it will begin offering immunization to select professionals and people living in communities where the COVID-19 risk is higher.
Schafer said he believes it is unlikely more than a small group of people would make a fraudulent statement to gain early access to the vaccine.
"I think overwhelmingly, people will have behaved responsibly and ethically and will continue to do so, but an anti-social minority… can, if their antisocial conduct becomes public, trigger a cascade and it could become a problem," he said.
"Given that the stakes are now higher, there should be regulations... there should be enforcement, even if it’s a small minority of cases."
On Tuesday, the provincial government was unable to specify what penalties exist for members of the public who provide false information in order to book an immunization appointment.
The province was also unable to say what regulation or law it is referencing when it states providing false information during the screening process is an offence.
However, in early March, the province introduced an emergency order that allowed Shared Health to conduct an audit of health-care workers to see if anyone had received the vaccine before they were eligible. The order expired April 15, and was not renewed.
The immunization records of more than 2,000 health-care workers were scrutinized.
According to the order, Shared Health had the right to pass on information about workers who were found to have misrepresented their eligibility to police, the governing body for their health profession or their employer.
"The audit found some instances of health-care workers who had likely received their dose of the vaccine slightly in advance of their age bracket," acting deputy chief public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said last week. No numbers were released.
"However, none of these instances were identified as being blatant attempts to jump the vaccination queue, and no further action will be taken."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.