Almost one month after France introduced its vaccine passport, the country’s COVID-19 cases are down and vaccinations are up.
With vaccine certificate programs rolling out in some provinces, the French experience might provide some clues to what Canadians can expect — though some experts warn a drop in case numbers through vaccine passports alone might be too much to hope for.
France introduced its vaccine passport or “pass sanitaire” Aug. 9, making it mandatory to provide vaccination status or show a recent negative test in order to dine indoors at restaurants, get on trains and planes, and visit shopping malls, among other things.
More than one million people signed up for vaccine appointments the day after President Emmanuel Macron announced the policy on July 12. Just under 64 per cent of people had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 2, compared with 53.6 per cent on July 12, despite protests against the measure.
Government data shows nearly 72 per cent of the total French population had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Aug 30.
And while the country was registering around 23,000 cases per day the week of Aug. 9 – when the policy came into effect – on Sept. 2, it reported just 15,911 new cases.
It’s a little hard to tell whether the drop in cases was due to the vaccine passport program or something else, said Dr. Peter Juni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
But he believes it’s clear that the program had an effect on vaccination rates.
“What we clearly saw in France is an uptake of vaccine coverage at the time when they actually had reached a plateau. So it really just was a real booster for vaccine coverage, for sure,” he said.
Following the Euro 2020 soccer games this summer, France and many other European countries saw outbreaks of COVID-19, Juni said. But after, he said, France “implemented various measures and they clearly got the pandemic under control, which is great news.”
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Announcing vaccination requirements to take part in various activities boosts vaccination rates, agreed Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital.
“When you look at the rates of vaccination, they went up pretty dramatically immediately after the announcement was made that a vaccine certificate program was going to be implemented and that happened in France, it also happened in Quebec and then again in British Columbia,” he said.
Even in Ontario, which only announced a vaccine certificate program Wednesday, vaccine appointments more than doubled, according to a tweet by provincial Health Minister Christine Elliott.
In many cases, it was younger age groups signing up for shots, Bogoch said, perhaps because they realized that they would need proof of vaccination for a more normal life.
One of the primary goals of a vaccine passport or certificate program is to boost vaccination rates, Juni said, but he thinks it will also help to decrease transmission of the virus in high-risk areas like restaurants or gyms.
“If we admit only people who are fully vaccinated to high-risk spaces, this means the risk for everybody to experience transmission decreases considerably,” he said.
According to recent statistics, it’s much less likely that a crowd of vaccinated people will include someone infected than a crowd of unvaccinated people, he said.
“The second part is we need to keep people who are unvaccinated out of trouble because it will be predominantly people who are unvaccinated who end up in our schools and in our hospitals,” Juni said. “So if we don’t want the health-care system to be overwhelmed, we need to keep those people who are not vaccinated out of high-risk settings.”
Bogoch warns that vaccine certificates don’t eliminate the risk of indoor gatherings, though.
“We know people can still get infected if they’re vaccinated, they’re just less likely to get infected. And similarly, those who are infected are just less likely to transmit to others, but they could still get infected and transmit,” he said.
“So it’s a helpful tool to increase the safety of an indoor environment, but it should be seen as a significant layer of protection, but not the only layer of protection.”
Vaccine certificates alone won’t drive down case numbers, according to Bogoch.
“If we really want to drive cases down, we still have to do exactly what we’ve been talking about for over a year, which is create safer indoor spaces, support communities that are disproportionately impacted and really get vaccines out to those communities in a more meaningful manner,” he says.
—With files from Reuters
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