TORONTO — Ontarians who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can start downloading new QR codes this week, which officials say will allow for faster entry into settings that require proof of vaccination.
The enhanced system officially takes effect Oct. 22, but Ontarians can get their new scannable vaccine certificates before then, and businesses can already start using a new app to verify those codes.
Premier Doug Ford, who has said he implemented a proof-of-vaccination system reluctantly, stressed again Friday that it's necessary but temporary.
"We ask that everyone continue to demonstrate the same co-operation and understanding that has gotten us this far, and to focus on what these temporary measures mean to us," he said.
"They mean we can allow businesses the comfort to keep operating safely. They mean we can continue getting back to doing things we want without losing the gains we've made. And they mean we have the best chance to avoid being forced back into lockdowns that nobody wants."
Ontario's chief medical officer of health has said vaccine certificates will be in effect at least until after any transmission that takes place over winter holiday gatherings can be assessed.
But Ford said with daily case counts declining and hospital metrics stable, he will announce a plan next week for how and when to lift further public health restrictions, such as capacity limits on restaurants.
Under Ontario's vaccine certificate program, only those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 -- or have a valid medical exemption from a doctor -- can access certain settings, such as theatres, gyms, nightclubs and restaurant dining rooms.
On Friday, residents whose birthdays fall between January and April were able to download the enhanced vaccination certificate through the province's COVID-19 website. Further cohorts are set to get access each day until everyone will be able to download it on Monday.
The government said it is working on developing functions that will let people add their new vaccine certificate with the QR code to their Apple or Android wallets, but for now, people can save a screen shot to their photos or add it to files as a PDF.
Businesses can download an app called Verify Ontario that will scan the QR codes, and if the patron is fully vaccinated, the business will see a checkmark and the person's name and date of birth, to be checked against their ID.
Verify Ontario doesn't store information, and can work without being connected to the internet, though officials say the app should periodically be online so it can download updates. It collects basic Google analytics information, such as how many times it is used, but the data is anonymized, officials say.
Organizations and businesses requiring proof of vaccination will still need to also accept vaccine receipts currently in use, and won't be required to use Verify Ontario.
The app can also read other provinces' vaccine certificate QR codes, including those from British Columbia and Quebec.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce applauded the rollout, but said continued supports for businesses are needed, particularly for those still with capacity limits.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also called for more funding.
"You're asking these businesses to do your work," said Julie Kwiecinski, director of the CFIB's Ontario affairs. "This is your policy. In the very least help them with funding for smart devices, lost business and extra staff.”
Kwiecinski said she is concerned that medical exemptions are not yet a part of the QR code. Currently, it is up to staff at businesses to check doctors' notes for medical exemptions.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is working on a process to embed medical exemptions in the code, involving public health units verifying the exemptions.
"That's going to take a little bit of time, we don't have an exact date for that, but it's going to be up to the individuals to take that information once they get their medical exemption to their local public health unit," she said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government's app still falls short.
"(Ford) wants credit for playing show-and-tell with a vaccine certification app that should've been available weeks ago like it has been in other provinces," she said.
"The app still has loopholes and problems, including the fact that it doesn't deal with medical exemptions."
Ontario reported 496 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and two more deaths. Elliott said 334 of those cases are in people who aren't fully vaccinated or whose vaccine status isn't known.
More than 87 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 83 per cent have both doses.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press