Alberta changing rules to require negative COVID-19 tests at international border crossings

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Starting Monday, Alberta will require all travellers arriving at land border crossings to show proof of a negative PCR test completed in the United States within the previous 72 hours, the province's top public health doctor says.

In coming weeks, all air travellers arriving from outside of Canada will also be required to undergo a COVID-19 test on entry at the border and to quarantine for 14 days at a federally-designated hotel.

"In light of these new federal requirements, as well as the growing spread of variant strains in other parts of the world, when the new federal restrictions come into place we will be suspending the Alberta border pilot at the Calgary airport," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday at a news conference.

"Thanks to the testing processes already in place because of our border pilot, Alberta's labs are well-positioned to support this new federal requirement," Hinshaw said.

"The border pilot will continue at the Coutts border entry until a decision is made by the federal government on whether additional restrictions are needed at land border crossings."

Hinshaw commended front-line workers from Alberta Health Services, the Calgary International Airport, the airlines and the University of Calgary for helping make the pilot a success.

"I also want to reiterate the important role that this border pilot has played in the last three months in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the province," she said.

People who return from international destinations are required to quarantine in their homes when they come back to Canada but would not typically be tested unless they experience symptoms, Hinshaw said.

"The result was that only a small proportion of returning travellers were typically tested on arrival. Under the border pilot, since November, we have been able to test more than 49,000 returning travellers as soon as they arrived.

The positive cases identified included many people who were not showing symptoms, Hinshaw said. The pilot project also allowed the province to screen all positive cases for coronavirus variants, helping prevent them from spreading widely.

"We will begin the policy work with the federal government and local partners so Alberta has a plan to replace the current requirements well before they are set to expire, and to ensure the safe restart of travel when the time is right," she said.

Latest numbers

Alberta reported 351 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 16 more deaths from the illness.

The province had 5,501 active cases, with 397 patients being treated in hospitals, including 71 in ICU beds.

A total of 1,744 people have died from the illness in Alberta since the pandemic began more than 11 months ago.

While case numbers have declined recently, more-contagious variants of the coronavirus continue to spread.

As of Thursday, a total of 156 cases of two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the province. There are now 149 cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom and seven of the variant first identified in South Africa.

The 36 new variant cases was the largest 24-hour increase the province has seen, Hinshaw said.

Samples from all positive results on COVID-19 tests are shipped to another lab that screens for the variants.

"And the lab has done an amazing job on ramping up their testing, but sometimes the time between that original test and that screen can be a bit delayed because of that transport time. And so what we've seen, again, is several days worth of testing that have come in all at once.

"The additional cases that are being reported today are cases that were detected over about a one-week time span."

The total number of variant cases that are not travel-related is 93, and many have been detected through intensive follow-up, such as double-testing close contacts, she said.

More than 135,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered and about 42,000 Albertans had been fully immunized with a double dose.