Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it's premature to talk of so-called "immunity passports" for Canadians because the science is unclear about whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 are protected from catching it a second time.
As provinces begin opening up their economies from COVID-19 lockdowns, Trudeau said on Saturday none of those recovery plans hinge on people being immune to catching COVID-19 twice.
Trudeau said he spoke to premiers Friday and they discussed a basic framework that provinces will use as they reopen businesses, schools and other institutions. The focus, he said, is on preventing the spread of the virus through physical distancing and personal protective equipment.
"It is very clear that the science is not decided on whether or not having had COVID once prevents you from having it again,'' he told reporters. " It's something we need to get clearer answers to and until we get those clearer answers, we need to err on the side of more caution.''
Trudeau was responding to a recent World Health Organization brief stating there is no evidence that people who have recovered from the virus have antibodies that protect them from getting infected again.
The WHO issued the brief in the context of certain countries announcing the possibility of providing so-called "immunity passports" or "risk-free certificates" to citizens who have already been infected.
Provinces have varying approaches to relaxing public health orders that were put in place to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, for instance, continue to urge citizens to stay home as much as possible, while New Brunswick announced Friday low-risk outdoor activities such as golf, hunting, and fishing were permitted to resume.
Ontario and Quebec announced they would present their recovery plans next week. Quebec Premier Francois Legault said his government would detail separate plans for schools and then for businesses.
Legault and the province's director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, have been pushing the idea of "herd immunity" as an approach to re-opening schools. That strategy involves exposing a large proportion of Quebecers to the novel coronavirus in a measured, gradual way, to help them develop a natural immunity.
That theory follows the logic of a vaccination program. When people receive a vaccine, they are given a weakened form of the virus, allowing their immune system to build antibodies to kill it.
"The idea is to go very gradually so that people who are less at risk can develop antibodies to be able to become immune," Legault told reporters earlier in the week.
But Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, warned against that approach Saturday. She said the federal government has put in place an immunity task force that will investigate how people's immune systems are responding to COVID-19.
She said that since many Canadians have followed physical distancing orders, the percentage of the immunized population is "quite low." And despite evidence that the virus is particularly dangerous to older people and those with underlying health conditions, younger people are still at risk.
"So the idea of generating natural immunity is actually not something that I think should be undertaken," she said. "I personally think that as medical officers, we would be extremely cautious about that kind of approach."
The case count in Canada topped 45,000 on Saturday. The global death toll, meanwhile, went above 200,000.
Many of the deaths in Canada have been people in senior homes and long-term care facilities, which have struggled to manage outbreaks among residents and staff.
Five of the six deaths connected to COVID-19 that were reported Saturday in Nova Scotia, for example, occurred at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax Regional Municipality. There are 10 licensed long-term care homes and unlicensed seniors' facilities in Nova Scotia with cases of COVID-19, involving 191 residents and 90 staff.
The situation is far worse in Quebec, where 65 percent of the province's 1,446 COVID deaths have occurred at long-term care facilities, many of which are severely understaffed. Another 15 percent of the province's death total comes from senior homes.
In Ontario, frontline health care workers in facilities such as long-term care homes, will receive a raise of $4 per hour for the next four months, Premier Doug Ford announced Saturday.
Aside from the long-term care homes, the premier said the bonus will be available for workers in senior residences, emergency shelters, supportive housing, social services congregate care settings, corrections institutions and youth justice facilities, home and community care providers and some staff in hospitals.
The premier made the announcement as dozens of protesters took to the provincial legislature to defy physical distancing measures set by the province.
"It just burns me up," said Ford, who called the protesters "reckless" and "selfish."
"We have health-care people working tirelessly, but then we have a bunch of yahoos sitting there protesting as they're breaking the law and putting workers in jeopardy."