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Some U.S. airlines are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for hires. Should Canada follow?

As several airlines south of the border announce rules for new hires to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, some experts are saying that the same should be considered by airlines in Canada as well.

Over the last month, major U.S. air carriers Delta and United Airlines said that they would require new employees to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus, citing it as a move to further safeguard its employees and customers.

The airline industry has been among the hardest hit over the course of the pandemic, shedding thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of revenue since the onset of COVID-19.

But now, as vaccination rates continue to ramp up across many parts of the world, including in Canada, many airlines have begun to announce a reopening of air routes and rehiring of their employees.

Last Thursday, Air Canada said it would begin recalling over 2,600 employees across various roles in preparation for a surge in demand for flights.

While none of the Canadian airlines have announced or made public any plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in returning or newly hired employees, several public health and travel experts have pointed to the move as a step in the right direction.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, told Global News in an interview Sunday that mandating vaccinations for workers in the travel industry, which offers vectors of “massive” virus transmission, is an option that should really be considered.

Kindrachuk said the travel industry in Canada has for the most part done relatively well in managing its transmissions, despite people travelling together in enclosed spaces like airplanes.

“That being said, you don’t need to have a lot of transmissions to have concerns. We really need to have one or two cases that ultimately lead to the initiation of new COVID transmissions, and that’s the concern,” he said.

Any way to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, like vaccinating employees, should be an important factor in deciding new policies or mandates, he said.

Kindrachuk’s comments come after recent federal data pointed to domestic flights in Canada accounting for 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases among air travellers.

The data, released last month, revealed that 226 domestic flights between April and May of this year had at least one person who tested positive for COVID-19, compared to the 50 planes with positive cases entering Canada internationally.

Canada has over the last year and half imposed stringent measures on international travel to the country, including a flight an from India and Pakistan over concerns rising COVID-19 cases. The same level of restrictions, however, do not apply to passengers travelling domestically.

The need for more ways to prevent infections also comes at a time when new cases of the more transmissible Delta variant are beginning to grow across Canada.

Experts have previously warned of the threat the variant poses to big provincial reopening plans.

“We’re in a position, unfortunately, that the virus now is much better [at spreading] than it was even a year ago — even six months ago,” said Kindrachuk of the Delta variant.

“So we don’t have that same ability to implement things like masking and distancing to try and combat the virus anymore because there are ways for that virus to just be able to be transmitted at a higher rate.”

According to Toronto-based employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse, any move to mandate vaccinations could be met with a slew of ethical — and legal — implications.

While Canada doesn’t have a law in place preventing businesses from requiring people to be vaccinated, any requests to do so could potentially be challenged by individuals on the basis of Canadian human rights law, he said.

Monkhouse said that what he expects to see in place from most airlines, and even others in the consumer industry, is a system that generally requires its employees to be vaccinated, but can potentially accommodate on a case-by-case basis, whether it’s due to health or reasons or beliefs that prevent them from getting the vaccine.

“I certainly think airlines, because it’s a customer safety issue and also, frankly, getting people trying to get people back on planes, they need a certain volume to make money. You have to have a full plane, so certainly we’re going to see that,” saidMonkhouse said, adding that he’s even started to see a preference for vaccinated employees to return to work in retail.

Two of Canada’s largest airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, told Global News they are recommending employees to get their vaccinations at this time.

“We are monitoring this evolving situation but it is premature to comment because the airline industry and international travel are highly regulated, therefore much will depend upon what measures governments, both Canadian and foreign, put in place,” Air Canada’s statement read.

Health Canada did not have a statement ready by time of publication.

A spokesperson from WestJet did not specifically comment on whether they would consider mandating vaccines for their employees, but added their chief medical officer was continuing to drive awareness of vaccinations “both internally and externally, in the effort to inform and educate WestJetters.”

Canadian airlines Sunwing and Air Transat did not respond to requests asking whether or not they were considering enforcing vaccine mandates on employees or customers.

According to Marty Firestone, president of Travel Secure, the concept of fully vaccinating airline employees and others in the travel industry is one that is “absolutely paramount” to the industry’s reopening.

“If you’re suggesting that potentially an employee or an airline person that could come in contact with me, from any agent to a flight attendant to a baggage handler, may not want to have both shots and be there working is a pretty scary thought,” said Firestone.

Firestone, who is a specialist in travel insurance and safety, said that knowing whether or not airline employees or others on the plane have had their two shots would make his clients feel much more comfortable to fly and travel again.

He added that many insurance companies were also beginning to recognize and incentivize those with vaccinations.

“Fully vaccinated people are now going to start getting recognition for support, whether it be through insurance companies, whether it be potentially sports attractions, restaurants, cinemas, pubs and for sure, countries and airline,” he said.

“You’re going to need to be double-vaccinated to travel and to come back into Canada. It’s quite evident that that’s got to happen.”

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