Ontario has granted fewer than 300 medical exemptions from COVID-19 vaccinations a month into a new system that requires them to be verified by local health units – a measure intended to cut down on fraud.
Now integrated into QR codes used under the proof-of-vaccination system to get into gyms, cinemas, sporting events, restaurants, bars, concert halls and other venues, the exemptions replace the previous regime in which patrons could show an exemption letter from a doctor to gain entry.
There were 290 medical exemptions registered in the provincial COVax computer system as of Monday’s reopening, according to government figures provided to the Star. Ontario’s population is approximately 14.7 million.
The relatively low number suggests the new system is working in the wake of concerns from chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore that no more than five in 100,000 Ontarians have specific and rare medical conditions that medically qualify them for vaccination exemptions, officials said.
“We are very pleased that given the limited number of valid medical exemptions issued to date, the process is working and individuals with legitimate medical exemptions are able to be accommodated,” said Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott.
Critics complained the old system of presenting doctor’s letters was ripe for abuse and forgeries. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is investigating more than 40 doctors for COVID-19-related issues, which include potentially bogus exemptions.
One government source told the Star last fall that “we’ve seen the same doctors giving out exemptions to everyone who asks.” It’s not known how many potentially invalid exemption letters were circulating.
Health units in Ontario have granted another 234 exemptions to citizens participating in vaccine trials.
Concerns about exemptions were amplified in the case when two of Premier Doug Ford’s then-70 MPPs claimed them – a statistical anomaly.
Lindsey Park (Durham) and Christina Mitas of (Scarborough Center) have announced they will not run in the June 2 election. Park quit the Progressive Conservative caucus last fall, leaving Mitas as the lone unvaccinated Tory MPP after the premier required all his members to be vaccinated unless they had a valid exemption.
Toronto Public Health said it has received 79 exemption requests from qualified medical practitioners and confirmed 58 of them. Eight were denied, and doctors or nurse practitioners who submitted another 13 have been asked for more detail “due to incomplete information in the initial submission.”
“Designated Toronto Public Health staff reviews each request to ensure the practitioner is qualified to make a submission according to the province’s criteria and that the information provided on the submission template complies with those criteria,” the health unit added in a statement.
In neighboring Peel, medical professionals can submit exemption applications to a secure online portal launched last week. To date, two exemptions have been requested and both were granted, Peel Public Health told the Star on Tuesday.
York Region Public Health reported 22 exemption requests with 20 approved, a rate of 1.8 per 100,000 residents – well below the statistical threshold set by Moore.
“Individuals without a clinic assessment from an Ontario health care professional will not be considered medical exempt from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” said York Region spokeswoman Melissa Pinto.
The Durham Region public health unit has received 11 exemption requests. Nine were granted and two remain under review.
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