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Quebec's 'unvaxxed tax' has people rushing to get vaccinated

A nurse prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children for distribution in Montreal late last year.
Andrej Ivanov
AFP via Getty Images
A nurse prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children for distribution in Montreal late last year.

Quebec's plan to put a "significant" health tax on unvaccinated people — who account for a large share of COVID-19 hospitalizations — quickly drove a rush of new appointments this week, health officials say.

"It's encouraging!" said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, in a tweet announcing the new gains.

Dubé said the number of new vaccine appointments shot up in the 48 hours around the announcement, reaching what he called a record for several days.

Quebec has reported the most COVID-19 deaths of any Canadian province, with more than 12,000 people losing their lives. With omicron driving new infections, officials recently ordered school closures and a 10 p.m. curfew.

When Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced the plan for a levy on the unvaccinated, he said that only around 10% of Quebec's population is unvaccinated but that they make up 50% of all intensive care cases.

Health officials also noted that the average cost of a COVID-19 case in hospital is $23,000 Canadian. For intensive care, the cost rises to $50,000.

The premier says he owes it to the vaccinated population

"Those who refuse to get their first doses in the coming weeks will have to pay a new health contribution," Legault said Tuesday. "The majority are asking that there be consequences. ... It's a question of fairness for the 90% of the population that have made some sacrifices. We owe them."

The health penalty would not apply to people with legitimate medical exemptions, Legault said. He hasn't given a date for when the penalty will be enacted.

Legault said late Wednesday that Quebec's schools and colleges are now cleared to reopen on Monday. There are also reports that the curfew will be lifted on the same day.

The tax is just one strategy to boost vaccination rates

Quebec has been trying to raise vaccination rates in a number of ways — including requiring a vaccine passport for anyone who wants to visit a liquor or cannabis store. In the province, roughly 90% of its eligible population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Canada's COVID-19 tracker.

In another sign of the fallout over vaccines in the province, a judge recently temporarily suspended a father's visitation rights to see his child because he is unvaccinated.

The special health tax immediately stirred controversy among vaccine skeptics and civil rights groups, who question whether it's legal and how it might be fairly enforced. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about Quebec's plan on Wednesday, he said it was too soon to comment on it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.