Initial demand for Manitoba’s secure COVID-19 immunization card was overwhelming, as more than 475,000 people signed up for the wallet-sized plastic credential to receive promised benefits for being vaccinated.
Eight short weeks later, public health officials have scaled back the privileges associated with the document significantly.
As of Saturday morning, moviegoers, art lovers and students of history will no longer have to show proof of vaccination to enter cinemas, galleries or museums. Restaurants and bars will no longer be restricted to members of households or vaccinated individuals under new public health orders that significantly reduce the number of venues where immunization is a condition of entry.
"We strongly recommend all eligible Manitobans to get vaccinated as soon as possible, twice. It's the best way to protect themselves and the people around them, as well as decrease our risk for a substantial fourth wave here in Manitoba," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Tuesday, announcing the moves.
For the time being, however, public health will still require proof of vaccination for people attending casinos and bingo halls, horse or auto racing events, professional sports or outdoor performing arts events, outdoor gatherings with more than 1,500 people, and indoor concerts.
A spokesman for Shared Health also confirmed Wednesday proof of vaccination will continue to be required for patients and residents to receive general visitors indoors at hospitals and personal care homes.
According to the Manitoba government, a total of $4.3 million has been budgeted to fund its secure immunization card. The price tag includes the cost of developing the program, maintaining the online database and applications required to authenticate the QR codes, and printing and mailing hard-copy cards to nearly a half-million people.
Despite the significant cost, government officials have maintained the program would be short-lived in order to safely restore some liberties to people while COVID-19 levels remained high and vaccination coverage was wanting.
"We hope this is a temporary measure," Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said during a news conference June 8, when the immunization card was first announced. "Of course, as we get to the point where everybody is vaccinated, we don't need to worry so much about this, but in the interim period, this is an important additional thing that will benefit you."
"Businesses are going to have to review the appropriateness of those measures, the acceptability of those measures." – Dr. Brent Roussin
The secure immunization card program has since been dogged by delays in issuing hard copies, owing to material shortages, incorrect vaccination records and complications in issuing cards to people who do not have a personal health information number.
As of Wednesday, the province had yet to make the secure immunization card available to people without a Manitoba Health card, including international students.
Even as public health orders are relaxed to allow people to mingle indoors at more venues, regardless of vaccination status, some businesses may still choose to require the province’s immunization card, Roussin acknowledged.
"Businesses are going to have to review the appropriateness of those measures, the acceptability of those measures," he said.
It’s also expected the card may be required at more venues in the fall, as public health balances a potential fourth wave driven by the Delta variant and the need to keep business, recreation and venues open to the public.
On Tuesday, Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said public health officials have contemplated reintroducing restrictions based on vaccination status in the future, if warranted.
"Certainly, we are looking at things like whether we would have to reinstate different public health requirements. We’re looking at whether or not they would apply to everybody equally, or if there might be differences based on geography, based on vaccine status," Reimer said, adding no recommendations had yet been provided to government.
"As we get closer to needing to implement them, if indeed that happens, we need to tailor our recommendations to the situation at that time."
On Wednesday, 80 per cent of Manitobans at least 12 years of age had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; 71.6 per cent were fully vaccinated.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.