As restrictions loosen for fully vaccinated travellers coming in and out of Canada, more cases of COVID-19 will be imported, experts say, though getting more Canadians vaccinated will reduce the chances of significant outbreaks.
As of July 5, fully vaccinated Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people registered under the Indian Act will no longer have to quarantine when they enter Canada, the federal government announced Monday.
At a press conference, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said the government is still urging people not to travel internationally right now, but noted the border restrictions that began more than 15 months ago “were never intended to be permanent.”
Easing restrictions does increase the likelihood that more COVID-19 cases will be introduced from abroad, experts say.
There is always some risk that even fully vaccinated travellers can carry the virus, said Dr. Kelley Lee, a professor in health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance.
“What the science says is that no vaccines provide 100 per cent protection of getting infected,” she said, but noted the vaccines approved in Canada are very effective against infection.
“People can become infected and they can also still transmit the virus even if they’re fully vaccinated. And that’s what makes it very difficult to just not fling open the borders as we all really want to. But unfortunately, because that’s the case, we have to be still very careful about who we let in, how we test and quarantine those people as they come in.”
Health Canada data shows between June 6 and June 17, 73 flights landed in Canada carrying at least one passenger positive for COVID-19. There is no public data on the vaccination status of those passengers.
Because of the risk of introducing new cases, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital, it’s important to be clear on what Canada’s goals are.
“If the goal is to keep all cases out, we would have a different policy,” he said. “But that’s obviously not the goal. The goal is to certainly significantly reduce the number of cases that are introduced.”
Keeping in mind that Canadians want to travel, though, he said these rules are “reasonable.”
“We want the freedom to travel and we want to reap the rewards of vaccination, which I think most Canadians do. But there will be a small trade-off and that means there’ll be some cases introduced into the country,” he said.
Unvaccinated people will still have to quarantine upon arrival in Canada. Also, children who are too young to get the vaccine will also have to quarantine — though they will be permitted to do it at home. Their fully vaccinated parents will be allowed to go out into the community.
Again, Bogoch thinks this is a reasonable compromise.
“Kids, of course, can transmit this infection. And those under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine, so they’re being treated like other unvaccinated individuals,” he said.
Then there is the question of proof.
Travellers are being asked to provide proof of vaccination, first through the ArriveCAN app before they arrive and then to keep copies of that proof with them.
Falsifying vaccination documents can result in a $750,000 fine, up to six months in jail, or both.
Blair said the government will be able to verify the vaccination certificates, but added that Canadians should carry a digital or paper copy of their vaccination records — for both doses — in addition to uploading it to the government’s app.
“We’re very confident that the ArriveCAN app will do the job for us, for all travellers coming to Canada, to be able to verify the vaccine documentation,” Blair said.
“I’m not really sure how they would do that,” Lee said, adding she would like to hear more details on how the app could detect fraudulent documents.
Global News requested information from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), but did not receive a response by deadline.
“Of course, there’s going to be attempts to create fraudulent certification for immunization,” she said. “So what the government really needs to do is make sure that there’s a secure and reliable system. And that has been talked about a lot around the world because there’s recognition of this problem.”
This is complicated by different countries recognizing and using different vaccines, and a lack of standardized documentation, according to Lee.
“For the traveller, it could be a nightmare,” she said. “You have these different requirements, may not be able to do things if you arrive in a country. If they’re using vaccine passports domestically, you might not be able to do what you want to do and so on.”
Countries are working on a system to standardize these things, Lee said, but it’s not a top priority right now as most countries are still just trying to vaccinate their own population and deal with the pandemic.
Both Bogoch and Lee say that this is only a first step in opening up international travel in Canada — and that having more and more Canadians fully vaccinated is key to opening borders.
“Vaccines are definitely a game-changer. We are in a very different situation than we were six months ago,” Lee said.
“And so if we get sufficiently high enough percentage of the population in Canada fully vaccinated, it won’t matter as much if we do continue to import virus because it’s like a match falling in a wet forest: it’ll be less likely that that match will spark an outbreak.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
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