If Hamilton has to make its own vaccine certificate system, privacy issues will be a hot topic

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Published August 25, 2021 at 7:07 pm

Three provinces have introduced vaccine passports, while Ontario has not. That might drop the issue at the front door of Hamilton City Hall. (file photo)

The longer that the Ontario government goes without introducing a vaccine certification system, the more likely it is that Hamilton’s leadership will have to go make its own.

On Wednesday, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, said he is looking into what might be done to create a system locally in the absence of a provincial system. His counterpart in Eastern Ontario, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, who also chairs the Council of Ontario Medical Officers, told Radio-Canada in an interview in French that the province will not have a choice but to create one within weeks. Here in Hamilton, Chief Frank Bergen has stated that all Hamilton Police Service officers will be required to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 4.

British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec have introduced vaccine certificates, AKA vaccine passports. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on July 15 that it was a non-starter for his Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario government. There has been no public statement of any shift in the PCPO position since, and Ford has not held a media availability since July 30.

There is nothing stopping a public health unit for a region or major city from developing its own vaccine certification, in the absence of provincial action.

Peel Region’s initiative would seem pertinent for Hamilton. Peel actually had 52 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. Hamilton, though, had 86, which represented 13 per cent of the provincewide tally of 660.

Privacy concerns come up when the concept is discussed. Being required by law to hold up one’s smartphone to be scanned in order to work out at the gym or dine in a restaurant is a change for any human, regardless of how well-intentioned or well-informed the privacy arguments might be. However, the federal government was out in front of that months ago. .

On May 19, all federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement that emphasized strict limitations for vaccine certificiates. In part, it noted that:

“Vaccine passports must be developed and implemented in compliance with applicable privacy laws.  They should also incorporate privacy best practices in order to achieve the highest level of privacy protection commensurate with the sensitivity of the personal health information that will be collected, used or disclosed.” (Government of Canada, May 19)

Another condition at that time was “the collection, use, disclosure and retention of personal health information should be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes of developing and implementing vaccine passports.

Manitoba introduced a proof-of-immunization card in June and added an app in early August. It only shows a person’s name and the QR code when they hold up their phone be scanned by the Manitoba Immunization Verifier app.

In Quebec, residents who are vaccinated have received an QR code that they can upload to an an application called VaxiCode. It went live for Apple users on Wednesday and will go live in a few days for people with Android phones.

VaxiCode will register only one’s name, date of birth and vaccination status. Additional information may appear for people who received just one dose of vaccine because they had tested positive for COVID-19, and those who have been advised not to get vaccinated for medical reasons. A signature is embedded in the QR code to prevent fraud.

Quebec businesses are using an  app called VaxiCode Vérif. Like the Manitoba app, it will only show a person’s name and vaccination status, and not their date of birth.

The information will disappear within a few seconds.

That would appear to comply with the privacy commissioners’ condition, set out in May, that, “Active tracking or logging of an individual’s activities through a vaccine passport, whether by app developers, government, or any third party, should not be permitted.”

Both the Quebec and Manitoba apps operate off-line, so you can put your phone in airplane mode before presenting it at the door to an event or business.

British Columbia is providing a paper record for anyone who does not wish to carry their vaccine passport digitally. Premier John Horgan was clear on Monday that the only purpose of it is “whether or not you’ve been immunized.”

Whether Hamilton city council, Hamilton Public Health Services and medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson have to take a step similar to their Peel counterparts remains to be seen.

As it stands, council is holding a special meeting on Thursday (Aug. 26) to a debate a recommendation to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all city employees and volunteers who are safe medically to receive one. Some of that discussion during the 9:30 a.m. meeting will be held in closed session.

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