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Sports: WHL's vaccine mandate worked perfectly; could that lesson be applied everywhere?

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WHL commissioner Ron Robison announced in September that the league had achieved 100 per cent compliance with its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. © @TheWHL/Twitter WHL commissioner Ron Robison announced in September that the league had achieved 100 per cent compliance with its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Experts watching Canada's response to the pandemic say sports leagues, including the Western Hockey League, are showing what can be achieved with firmer vaccination policies.

In a news conference in September, WHL commissioner Ron Robison said that 100 per cent of the league's players and staff were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

As reported by the Brandon Sun, Robison said the league didn't lose a single player or staff member over the policy, and there were no requests to opt out.

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The WHL didn't leave testing as an option to satisfy its vaccine mandate, choosing instead to make vaccination mandatory.

About 57 per cent of the players listed online on WHL teams' rosters come from the Prairie provinces.

Among the provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had the lowest percentage of their populations fully vaccinated as of Tuesday — ranging from 73 to 76 per cent, according to CBC's online COVID-19 vaccine tracker.

Impact of firmer vaccine mandates

The WHL announced its mandatory vaccination policy after the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League instituted similar policies.

Most major professional sports leagues across North America have opted to introduce strong incentives for players to be vaccinated as opposed to blanket mandates. Most have reported vaccination rates of at least 90 per cent, with the NHL and WNBA at over 99 per cent.

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Fatima Tokhmafshan, a geneticist and bioethicist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, said there's a very simple explanation for the vaccination compliance rate in the WHL.

"They didn't give any other alternatives to their members," she said. "They said if you want to play, you've got to get the jab — and it's worked very well for them.

"So it's being very firm as to what are the options that you're offering people."

Anywhere where mandates have been implemented, the inclusion of alternatives or options to vaccination has dictated how much of an uptake there has been, Tokhmafshan said.

She said researchers know that when you offer other options to the vaccine-hesitant, they will opt for alternatives such as testing.

"The biggest takeaway is that if you are clear with your mandate — with the policy that you set out, if you don't leave any grey areas — that you will have the uptake," she said.

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However, Tokhmafshan said, the Western Hockey League is a little bit of a special situation because the young athletes have hopes and dreams of turning pro — and the stakes for them are high if they were to opt out of getting vaccinated.

She said when it comes to the broader population, one of the most important things to consider before implementing vaccine mandates is equity and access.

"Equity and access also pertains to access to accurate information, access to trustable sources of information, people that align with your identity, with your culture, with things that you believe in and are able to give you accurate information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines," she said.

Tokhmafshan said whatever mandates are put in place should be firm but with specific consideration to the particular situation and contexts of each region and for any groups that are marginalized or traditionally under-served.

In her view, "it cannot be a very universal national mandate or even a provincial mandate."

Vaccination incentives in sports leagues 'relevant'

Timothy Caulfield, an author, professor and Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said there is some speculation in the academic community that vaccine mandates will work with "hard-core deniers" because it allows them to deal with their cognitive dissonance.

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"They can say, 'Look, I still disagree with this. But I guess I've got to get it done if I want to play hockey. I guess I've got to get it done if I want to work in this situation,'" he said.

However, Caulfield added, we know that incentives work.

"I think one of the lessons that we can take away from what's happened in the sports leagues is that if you have an incentive, if you have a disincentive that really impacts their professional lives, they're more likely to respond," he said. "And we're seeing that in other contexts also."

"But this evidence emerging from sports leagues, it's relevant, and it shows that incentives and disincentives can make a difference."

But policy makers need to use a range of tools, Caulfield said.

"We've got to come at hesitancy from all directions," he said. "We've got to come at misinformation from all directions. We need good education. We need thoughtful, non-judgmental engagement."

The WHL declined a CBC News request for an interview. But, Robison, the league commissioner, said in September that prior to mandating it, the WHL had more than 95 per cent of its players and staff fully vaccinated.

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist and Canada Research chair at the University of Manitoba, applauds the league's achievment, "especially at a time when there's a lot of misinformation, when there's certainly a lot of consternation about mandates."

Trust still important

Kindrachuk said it has to be a two-way conversation where the public feels like they are part of the equation, "not just a one-way conversation where you have experts that are coming in that are saying, 'This is the absolute of why you need to do this and how you need to do this.'"

There are situations where vaccine mandates are very important, especially during a public health crisis such as the pandemic, he said.

But Kindrachuk said he hasn't made up his mind about the place of vaccine mandates over the long-term out of concern that those that are hesitant will become more polarized with broad mandates.

He said much hinges on community trust.

"Yes, you can try and enforce mandates. You can try and incentivize them. But if you want long-term buy-in, much of that is still built on forging trust," he said.

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