British Columbia seems to have figured out part of the secret to convincing a swath of still unvaccinated young people to get their dose.
Appointments for jabs skyrocketed in the province this week after it rolled out plans for a vaccine passport system. Experts say the B.C. experience is showing that incentivizing people to get vaccinated can help nudge those on the resistant end of the spectrum to change their minds.
Provincial officials announced Monday that residents would need proof of vaccination if they wanted to enjoy a pint at the bar, go to the movies or join a fitness class.
That same day, there were 8,909 new registrations for the province’s vaccine program and 7,347 new appointment bookings — representing a “significant increase,” particularly among people under 40, said a provincial news release. The numbers represented, respectively, a 174 per cent and 88 per cent increase compared to the previous week.
On Tuesday, there were 10,175 registrations and 9,486 new appointments, a 201 per cent and 124 per cent increase.
“I am pleased that people are heeding our call to roll up their sleeve to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said the provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix. “But there’s more work to do, and I encourage everyone to make the best choice to protect themselves, their loved ones and their community — get vaccinated.”
Other provinces should “100 per cent” follow British Columbia’s example, said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa.
He said there’s several categories of people who have not been vaccinated yet: ineligible people; hardcore anti-vaxxers; vaccine hesitant people; those who want to be vaccinated but may have trouble figuring out how to do it; and then those who are apathetic — they may not be against vaccines but think they’re healthy and don’t need them.
“This is where the vaccine passports really work well,” said Deonandan of the apathetic cohort. “Because suddenly, it tilts in favour of that risk-reward ratio and provides an incentive to them to get vaccinated where there wasn’t one before.”
He likened it to the anti-smoking campaign public health experts struggled with for years until they figured out that if smoking is restricted in restaurants or on trains, there’s an incentive not to do it. However, it can take a long time to change certain types of behaviour, he added, and a vaccine passport in the pandemic context isn’t necessarily going to push everyone to get a shot.
Those who are very against getting vaccines or are fearful of them still might not be convinced enough to get one.
“It won’t be the end of the story,” he said. “It is a bit of a game-changer, because the apathetic constitute a fairly large proportion of the vaccine resistant.”
Polls have found broad support for vaccine passports amongst Canadians, even in provinces that haven’t yet shown an interest in launching them.
A Leger poll released last week found that 76 per cent of Canadians outside of Quebec would support vaccine passports.
In Alberta, where there’s been cold reception by provincial officials to the idea of a vaccine passport system, the Leger poll found 76 per cent of Albertans backed the idea along with 77 per cent in Ontario.
Deonandan said he believes it’s just a matter of time before Ontario launches them.
“Ontario has a history of refusing to do the right thing until the absolute last minute and, eventually, doing the right thing,” he said.
In B.C., come Sept. 13, proof of at least one dose must come before certain fun and recreation. By Oct. 24, people will need to have received their second dose of vaccine at least a week earlier. Without proof, people won’t be able to enjoy indoor sporting events, concerts inside, weddings, nightclubs and high-intensity fitness indoors. Residents will be able to download the vaccine cards onto their phones, or have a physical copy, indicating whether they are partially or fully vaccinated.
In announcing its plan, B.C. joined the ranks of Manitoba and Quebec as provinces that have adopted some form of such a system.
A spokesperson for Quebec’s government said they couldn’t confirm whether appointments jumped in that province in the wake of vaccine passport plans. An official with Manitoba’s government said that province did not see an uptick like British Columbia’s after it introduced vaccine cards on June 8, but added that their rules around proof of vaccination weren’t as strict as those in B.C.
Aslam Anis, director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, said that from a health economics perspective, the societal benefit of getting a vaccine is bigger than a personal one.
A person considering getting a jab may decide whether they do or do not based on whether they fear side-effects or adverse events, he said, “but that personal decision only looks at the personal benefit.”
“I think a vaccine passport would make people reconsider the fact that it’s not just the benefits that they enjoy personally, but now their personal benefits are being curbed,” he said.
“I think it’s a good thing.”
With files from Alex McKeen
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt