Alberta’s health minister and chief medical officer of health say they would support repealing a piece of legislation that gives the government power to make vaccines mandatory.
The Public Health Act currently contains a section that allows the Lieutenant Governor in Council to order Albertans be immunized or re-immunized against a communicable disease in certain circumstances, like an epidemic.
That power has never been used in the province’s history, nor can Dr. Deena Hinshaw imagine a scenario where it would be.
“I think if we have a piece of legislation that we’re unlikely to use, I’m not sure it provides much benefit,” she told the legislative review committee examining the Act in August. “I would be comfortable with that particular piece of the legislation being removed.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro told CBC News he agrees.
“If it’s not intended to be used by government, has never been used in the history of this province, then I would have no problem with it being repealed,” he said.
The Act is currently under review by a special committee of the legislative assembly. For the section to be stricken from the Act, the committee would include a recommendation to do so when it reports back to the legislature at the end of October.
We want to ensure that the public has free choice in their medical treatments.– Craig Jenne, infectious disease expert
Members of the committee — the majority of them government MLAs — will be making recommendations to the government as it considers changes to the legislation.
Shandro said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the members suggest axing the mandatory vaccination section, and estimated it could be acted on as soon as this sitting or the subsequent one next spring.
The opposition NDP say focusing on an item in the Act that has never been used is an attempt by the UCP to eat up the committee’s time.
“These are the kinds of issues they’re focusing on rather than what Albertans want to hear or actually want to talk about. They’re trying to use these kinds of issues as a distraction,” David Shepherd, the health critic, said.
The NDP wants to drill down on what they call “overreaches” by the government introduced in Bill 10, which amended the Public Health Act, and examine outbreak responses in food processing plants and seniors facilities.
When it comes to mandatory vaccinations, Shepherd said he hopes to see widespread uptake when a COVID-19 treatment is available.
“I really do trust Albertans to make that decision and I think the decision should be in their hands.”
The premier has repeatedly addressed concerns about the government’s plans for a COVID-19 vaccination when one eventually gets approved.
“There’s been some misinformation that the government recently adopted a law requiring mandatory vaccinations that is completely untrue, that is just a total myth,” Jason Kenney said in May.
The government has said it would strongly encourage Albertans to receive an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, similar to flu season.
Pros and cons to mandating vaccines
Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, says there are pros and cons to having the power to mandate a vaccine.
It’s advantageous to be able to keep track of herd immunity status and manage supplies of the treatment. However, he says it’s hard to outweigh the big con.
“We want to ensure that the public has free choice in their medical treatments,” he said.
There have been mixed outcomes with vaccine uptake during previous public health crises. During the H1N1 epidemic, Alberta only achieved a 40 per cent voluntary immunization rate. Jenne says that didn’t hit the threshold for herd immunity. Mandatory vaccination was brought in for smallpox, which eventually led to its eradication in the 1970s.
Hinshaw has said she doesn’t expect COVID-19 vaccines to be approved for wide use until at least next year.
Jenne says he’s optimistic that when a treatment becomes available there will be a surge of voluntary inoculation.
“We have seen throughout this pandemic that people in general have chosen to do the right thing,” he said.
“My hope would be when a vaccine is available, when we know it is safe, when we know what works and that the chief public health officers are encouraging people to receive it, that we will get enough people to take the vaccine without the need to bring in any sort of mandatory regulations on that.”
Shandro says he’s concerned public trust in the province’s pandemic measures is being eroded by false claims about a looming forced immunization against COVID-19.
“We need people to buy into public health measures. And if they don’t, then it becomes more difficult for us to respond to a pandemic. So if we have legislation that we never intend to use, I think it might make it more difficult.”
The minister added his support of removing this section has nothing to do with pressure from anti-vaxxers.
“I see this as a totally separate issue and not at all in any way trying to appease people who might have opinions about vaccines that I think are incorrect.”
There are only a few weeks before the review committee’s report is due. Their next meeting is scheduled for Friday.