Is Canada even ready to open the U.S. border? 'Holes' in the system are putting us at COVID-19 risk, expert says

TORONTO, Feb. 1, 2021 -- A traveller wearing a face mask shows his test certificate at the exit of a COVID-19 testing site at Toronto International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 1, 2021. Canada's Ontario required all international arriving passengers to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival starting on Monday to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

The travel industry and travel enthusiasts may be anxiously waiting for the return to travel but Canada’s approach to border management has not been as adaptable and proactive as some experts would have liked to see, which should be fixed before border restrictions are significantly loosened.

“Generally Canada has pretty much a wait-and-see approach,” Dr. Kelley Lee, professor at Simon Fraser University, Canada Research Chair in global health governance, leading the Pandemics and Borders Project, told Yahoo Canada.

Last week, the Canada’s Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, said the federal government is looking at eliminating the hotel quarantine requirement for Canadians and permanent residents who are fully vaccinated with a Health Canada authorized COVID-19 vaccine. She indicated this could happen in early July.

"Travellers would have to be fully vaccinated 14 days or more prior to their arrival and they will still be required to have a negative pre-departure PCR test result, and required to be tested upon arrival," Hajdu said.

Lee indicated a core consideration for loosening border restrictions is that Canada should not rush to make any changes to the existing rules.

"We have to address all these holes in our system, which actually don't allow us to manage the risk from travel very effectively now, even before we open the border," she said.

What has border management looked like in Canada?

At the outset, while the World Health Organization (WHO) initially argued against border closures, Canada took that approach before stricter measures were put into place in March 2020 to reduce the number of non-essential travellers to Canada.

“We never closed our borders, we never banned travel, even though you hear travel bans and border closures, that's rarely the case in any country, including Canada,” she said.

On March 18, 2020, the federal government restricted entry to Canada for individuals who are not citizens or permanent residents, with exemptions for “essential workers.” Initially, the Canada-U.S. border was not subject to these restrictions, with that change being made just days later.

The border rules remained relatively consistent until the end of the year and beginning of 2021, when a temporary ban came into effect on flights from the U.K., following the emergence of the Alpha variant. The pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirement, 72 hours before arriving in Canada, also came into effect around that time.

Currently, in addition to pre-departure testing, travellers at airports must get tested on arrival and are required to stay at a quarantine hotel until a negative test result is returned, or pay a fine of up to $5,000.

Travellers enter Canada through a land border with the U.S. must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result with 72 hours of presenting at the border.

Land border travellers are given two COVID-19 At Home Specimen Collection kits that must be used the day they arrive in Canada and on the eighth day of the 14-day quarantine.

Most recently, the federal government put in place a flight ban from direct flights coming to Canada from India and Pakistan, currently set to be in place until June 21.

"These ongoing measures will remain in place to help protect Canadians and to manage the elevated risk of importing cases of COVID-19 and variants of concern into Canada," Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said at a press conference in May.

Lee stressed that the federal government putting additional restrictions in place after variants of concern are identified, specifically after they have been detected within Canada, is problematic.

"Once we detect these variants, and there usually is a delay because you have to test people and then genome sequence the positive results, that’s weeks and weeks, and possibly months," she said. "Don't wait and then slam these flight bans on hotspot countries, those are really reactive ways of dealing with this."

"You have to put into place very effective measures that actually screen and quarantine everyone that comes in because you don't know where these variants are coming [from], you can’t anticipate what a hotspot country will be ahead of time. So you have to make sure that every traveller that comes in, ideally, if they’re carrying the virus they’ll be identified and if they are, then you push them off to side and you quarantine them."

VANCOUVER, BC - MAY 2 :  Passengers from Turkey walk to COVID-19 testing area at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on May, 2, 2021.  Turkish Airlines' service on Istanbul-Vancouver route has started on May 2, 2021. (Photo by Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - MAY 2 : Passengers from Turkey walk to COVID-19 testing area at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on May, 2, 2021. Turkish Airlines' service on Istanbul-Vancouver route has started on May 2, 2021. (Photo by Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How many travellers have come into Canada with COVID-19?

A statistic from earlier in 2021 that continues to be shared indicates that less than two per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada have been directly linked to travel.

For Lee this statistic is not reliable, largely due to the number of people who are exempt from testing and quarantine measures, and with testing only coming into play in January of this year.

"There's also a lack of data on the onward transmission by travellers because we don't do very good contact tracing and many of the travellers don't quarantine, so if they come in contact with a taxi driver or bus driver or airport security or even family members, we don't do good enough contact tracing to see if they’ve infected somebody else," she said.

"I think for Canada, we've taken this approach that well, we can't keep it out, we can mitigate it and reduce the risk but really they're going to be here, and it’s only a small percentage anyway so let's just put our resources transmission, and that's a very flawed way seeing it, they're not separate.”

A report from the auditor general released in March found that from May 5 to June 30, 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was unaware of whether 66 per cent of incoming travellers who were required to quarantine were doing so.

"Of the individuals considered to be at risk of non-compliance, the agency referred only 40 per cent to law enforcement and did not know whether law enforcement actually contacted them," the report states. "The agency had not contemplated or planned for mandatory quarantine on a nationwide scale and, as a result, had to increase capacity to verify compliance."

Responding to the auditor general report, Canada's health minister said there has been "improvement" in Canada's "direct checks" on people who must quarantine.

"I will say that our evidence shows that since Apr. 1, 2020, when mandatory quarantine was implemented, in fact, 96 per cent quarantine compliance rate, 98 per cent quarantine compliance rate based on law enforcement," Hajdu said at a press conference on March 25. "We had over two million verification calls since March 8, over 70,000 in-person visit."

Lee also expressed concerns around the number of travellers who are exempt from the quarantine and testing measures, calling these exemptions "risky." Truck drivers delivering essential items and emergency response workers, for example, are exempt from all quarantine and testing requirements.

In Lee's view, while flight crews, for example, could be a small category of travellers who need exemptions, there is no reason other travellers cannot be tested for COVID-19, in addition to vaccination effort.

"I would extend the testing [to] many of the exempt travellers as well," she said. "We might have to look at who is exempt, why are they exempt, do they need to be and then you can do either a regular PCR testing or rapid testing."