Category Archives: COVID

Mind the Vaccination Gap. Mind the Trust Gap.

(While I am one of the Vancouver faculty representatives on the UBC Board of Governors, nothing I write should be taken to represent the Board or its deliberations. Opinions, such as they are, are entirely my own. )


We are fortunate to have effective vaccines to help protect us against the worst outcomes from COVID-19.  We are also fortunate such a large percentage of Canadians are willing to get vaccinated, which helps protect them and their communities.

But, we are still working towards achieving the high vaccination rates we need to reasonably protect the population, and especially those who are unable to be effectively vaccinated, from hospitalizations for serious COVID illness or death.

Many of the questions and concerns I hear from members of the UBC community arise from the uncertainty about the vaccination status of the UBC community when thousands of students arrive on our campuses in September from across BC, Alberta, the rest of Canada, and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.  Many of these students will not have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before arriving at UBC, and while we know UBC and the BC Government will provide vaccines for these students, we also believe it will take time for these students to be fully vaccinated.

In addition to concerns about vaccination rates, I hear concerns in response to the current surges of the pandemic involving the highly infectious Delta variant, including in the Central Okanagan where one of UBC’s campuses is located.(*) Some, who are public scholars in relevant disciplines, suggest we should continue to support our vaccination program with other mitigations such as mask wearing to reduce the risks of serious consequences and help minimize any 4th wave here in BC.

Two of my UBC colleagues, Dr Joanna McGrenere (UBCV Computer Science) and Dr Karen Bakker (UBCV Geography) recently shared a blog post on some of their thoughts on UBC’s return-to-campus in September.  They did not present a criticism of UBC’s Administration, nor of the Public Health Officer, nor of the BC Government in presenting the recommendations in this post. Instead, they stated: “Our goal is to provide helpful, constructive suggestions to support our collegial discussions.”  Collegial discussions are the bedrock of good university governance and unstated in their post is whether we are still able to engage in collegial conversations at UBC when it comes to the University’s return-to-campus plans.

Drs McGrenere and Bakker present the notion of a “vaccination gap,” which captures the important idea there may be significant (and generally unknown) differences between the ambient rates of vaccination in the health authorities containing our two campuses and the initial rates of vaccination amongst UBC students on arrival to their campuses from across BC, across Canada, and across the globe.

They ask how this vaccination gap might affect the UBC community in September.

This simple question should be considered in decisions related to the application of the COVID-19 Return-to-Campus Guidelines university administrators in BC have been given to follow.

Around the same time my colleagues made their blog post, the AMS presented the UBC Administration and Board of Governors with a letter asking UBC to mandate vaccinations for students living in UBC student residences and to mandate masks in lecture halls.

The Administration’s first response to the letter from the AMS fell flat.

There was further correspondence from the AMS to the UBC Administration pressing student concerns about the return-to-campus plans. The AMS Vice President University and Academic Affairs has posted on Twitter the most recent response from UBC, a letter from President Ono.  The President’s letter is remarkable and I will leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions from it.

I am not an expert on COVID-19 nor on vaccination mandates, but from my conversations with colleagues engaged in such research, there seem to be two general approaches to vaccination policy: (1) make vaccines mandatory and enforce compliance, and (2) ask and campaign for community commitment and make vaccines readily available. I’m told the efficacy of each of these approaches is well-established in the literature, and choosing which is best for UBC depends on the state of willingness of our community to be vaccinated, amongst other things. The second approach is certainly the one chosen by BC’s PHO as the general approach for the province, and it is also the one described by President Ono in his latest letter to the AMS.  Neither the PHO nor UBC have provided any reasons why this approach is a reasonable one for students living in UBC’s student residences, or for the general UBC community, particularly given the potential vaccination gap, the increased virulence of the Delta variant over previous ones, and the serious and undiscussed equity and inclusion issues connected to this approach. (The background rate of infections is also a factor, of course.)

As for mask mandates, some of the aforementioned colleagues doing COVID-19 related research have suggested we start with a mask mandate for our classrooms in September and then reassess the need for it at the end of September based on available data and against some predetermined criteria, renewing the mandate until conditions allow for it to end.  Is this a good idea for UBC? Again, it seems consideration of the vaccination gap,  the impacts of the infectiousness of the Delta variant, and equity and inclusions considerations would seem relevant to this decision. (Again, the background rate of infections is also a factor.)

UBC isn’t the only university in Canada considering how to respond to such uncertainty in planning for a return-to-campus in September.

The University of Toronto, for example, is requiring all students, faculty, staff, and librarians who participate in activities with high risk of COVID transmission to be vaccinated, and they are requiring all community members to declare their vaccination status.

McGill University has also announced a set of mitigations against COVID-19 for their return-t0-campus, including mandatory masks in classrooms and vaccination requirements for participation in extracurricular activities. Some of these measures are mandated by a new plan from the Quebec government in response to concerns about the Delta variant.

There are other examples, particularly in Ontario, where universities are able to implement additional measures above the basic ones set by the provincial government. This naturally leads to questions from members of the UBC community about UBC’s return-to-campus plans and why UBC has not been permitted by the government to include additional measures related to identified high risk situations and activities in the university.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant impacts experienced by so many in the UBC community, our government is asking members of the UBC community to trust the PHO and The Guidelines set for postsecondary institutions in BC for the return-to-campus in September.

Trust is the willingness to risk being vulnerable.

Expecting the more than 80 000 UBC faculty, students, and staff to trust given the present circumstances is a lot to ask. They simply have too many unanswered questions and concerns.



(*) The surge in the Central Okanagan reached a level that triggered new orders from the PHO on August 6th placing restrictions on many activities; the PHO has not specifically spoken to how this will affect postsecondary campuses in this region, but the re-imposed restrictions on indoor gatherings will have an impact on operations at UBCO and its ability to conduct classes if this outbreak continues into September.