Ontario to provide proof of COVID vaccination, those without it may face restrictions

 

TORONTO -- Ontario residents who choose not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine could face certain restrictions, the province's health minister said Tuesday, noting that the government will provide proof of immunization to those who get the shot. 

Christine Elliott said the province will not make the vaccine mandatory, but some activities - such as travel and access to communal spaces like cinemas - could eventually be restricted for those who opt not to get immunized.

The province will provide residents who have received the vaccination with a document to prove it, she said.

"That's going to be really important for people to have for travel purposes, perhaps for work purposes, for going to theatres or cinemas, or any other places where people will be in closer physical contact when we get through the worst of the pandemic," Elliott said. 

"That will be essential for people to have."

Elliott's comments come as Ontario prepares to receive its initial doses of the vaccine in the coming weeks. 

The province has said it plans to offer the vaccine first to vulnerable seniors, their caregivers and health-care workers.

It will also be prioritizing the rollout of the vaccine in regions with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection.

Retired Gen. Rick Hiller, who is leading Ontario's vaccine task force, said the province will receive 2.4 million doses - allowing it to vaccinate 1.2 million people - during the first three months of 2021.

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said the government has not clearly communicated how the vaccine rollout will take place, including how it will provide documentation to prove vaccination.

"For Ontarians there are a lot of unanswered questions," she said.

Meanwhile, the province's fiscal watchdog said Tuesday that Premier Doug Ford's government had $12 billion in unspent reserve funds by the end of September.

The Financial Accountability Officer said those funds were earmarked for three reserves, including two related to pandemic spending. The amount was  $2.7 billion more than his office said the government had unspent in reserves by Aug 26. 

Ford said the provincial budget, released last month, shows that 80 per cent of the reserve funds have been allocated. He defended hanging on to the remaining $2.6 billion in the funds as "prudent" fiscal management by his Progressive Conservative government.

"That's the difference between ourselves and the NDP and the Liberals," Ford said. "We actually have some money in contingency."

The budget also says that money that remains unspent in reserves by the end of the fiscal year will be used to reduce the deficit and provincial debt.

The government has been criticized by opposition politicians for sitting on billions in reserve funds, which they say it has been slow to spend during the pandemic.

Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the government should have been spending those funds cutting class sizes or bolstering public health resources during the pandemic.

"The services and the things that people need aren't all there. We need to address those priorities right now," he said.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said people will look at the financial accountability officer's report and wonder why the government sat on the funds when it should have been supporting small businesses or hiring more workers in long-term care.

"The FAO report confirms the premier dropped the ball over the summer," he said. "He did not have Ontario prepared for the second wave and failed to make the investments need to contain the virus."

Ontario reported 1,676 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 10 new deaths due to the virus.

The government said there are 588 new cases in Toronto, 349 in Peel Region, and 141 in York Region.

In the province's southwest, Windsor-Essex' medical officer of health warned that his community is seeing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm the local health-care system.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed said the area, which was placed in the red "control" zone at the end of November, now has case rates similar to regions in lockdown.

"As much as I want to share more happy news with you and to tell you that the risk of COVID-19 in our community is low, I can't," he said in a statement Tuesday. "The risk of acquiring COVID-19 in our community is increasing at a rapid rate."

Across the province, 794 people are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19, including 219 in intensive care.

With the number of hospitalizations growing, a group of five health-care organizations released an appeal Tuesday to residents. 

The association representing Ontario's hospitals, as well as professional associations representing nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists asked people to celebrate the holidays according to public health rules.

"Celebrating at a distance is the best way to support health-care professionals, and it is a small price to pay compared to the grief of those who could face far greater losses if we fail to do our part," the groups said in the statement.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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