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As travel increases, Canada boosting presence of health officials at airports, U.S. border

Canada’s greatest coronavirus threat comes from U.S.
WATCH: The Canada-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel, as America's COVID-19 infections surge. But as Mercedes Stephenson explains. there are concerns about the tens of thousands of foreigners that have been allowed into Canada during the pandemic.

Ongoing restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic have stopped many people from travelling, yet the number of international passengers arriving at Canadian airports each week has doubled in the past two months. The volume of people crossing the Canada-U.S. border has also increased.

Global News has learned the government is placing more public health officials at Canada’s busiest airports to screen incoming passengers for COVID-19. Quarantine and clinical screening officers are also being placed at the Canada-U.S. land border for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

This process was started eight weeks ago and is still ongoing, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said.

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“An increased presence of PHAC officials is being implemented at 36 high-volume points of entry, including air and land, that see 90 per cent of current incoming traveller volumes,” said Health Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau.

The number of international air travellers arriving at Canadian airports, including flights from the United States, increased from an average of about 15,000 people a week between late April and early May to 30,000 a week by mid- to late June, weekly travel statistics provided by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) show.

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While the number of passengers arriving from the U.S. and other countries directly increased at similar rates during this period, non-U.S. flights have accounted for the majority of international arrivals since the border was closed to all but essential travel in March.

“I find it hard to believe that the increase reflects essential travel,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto.

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“If we just doubled and it’s the beginning of July, it’s going to be an onslaught by September and we are going to get clobbered.”

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Since May 25, when the CBSA started giving weekly updates on the number of Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving by air, roughly 135,000 people have entered Canada on international flights. About 66,000 of these passengers were non-Canadian citizens or non-permanent residents.

The number of people crossing the Canada-U.S. land border has also increased, from roughly 115,000 a week between late April and early May to 170,000 a week by late June. This includes commercial truck traffic and non-commercial travellers.

CBSA enforcing restrictions

Furness said there are good reasons to travel during the pandemic, such as family reunification and returning home to Canada.

While he believes more public health officials at the border is an improvement, he said the government still hasn’t done enough to narrowly define what “essential” travel means, making it possible for people to come up with reasons why they should be allowed to travel.

He also said current screening measures are insufficient to detect COVID-19, especially among travellers who show no signs of the virus.

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“Governments keep on saying people shouldn’t (travel). We’ve got to stop saying shouldn’t and start saying can’t,” he said.

At present, the CBSA is enforcing two government orders that restrict people from entering Canada.

The first limits entry for all foreign nationals who arrive directly from another country other than the U.S. This covers anyone who arrives on an international flight and is neither a Canadian citizen nor a permanent resident.

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B.C. government closing popular Peace Arch Park at Canada-U.S. border

Unless a foreign national has an immediate family member living in Canada permanently, the order prohibits them from entering the country for all discretionary or non-essential purposes, such as vacation. Essential workers, airline crews, international students with valid visas and medical professionals whose work is linked to COVID-19 are exempt from these rules.

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The second order, which was recently extended until July 21, closes the Canada-U.S. land border to all but essential travel.

In June, some restrictions under an older version of this order were lifted, allowing people with immediate family members in Canada to cross the border so long as they adhere to quarantine rules.

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When passengers arrive at a Canadian airport — international arrivals are limited to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal — they are asked if they feel sick or have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. If they say yes, or if they say no but appear to be sick, they are directed to public health officials for further questioning.

All passengers must self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of whether they have the virus. They must also wear a mask while travelling and provide a suitable quarantine plan. Anyone who doesn’t have a suitable place to stay — or people with symptoms who do not have private transportation — must go to a government-run facility for the duration of their quarantine.

PHAC has been using the RCMP and other police forces across the country to perform “physical verification” checks to make sure people follow these rules since April.

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International arrivals must also complete a contact-tracing form so health officials can connect with anyone they’ve come into close contact with if they are sick or later test positive for COVID-19.

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Global News asked the government to explain the recent uptick in international air travel and what, if any, new measures have been introduced to address this increase.

The CBSA didn’t provide a definitive explanation for why the number of air travellers has increased, but said it may be due to Canadians and permanent residents returning home who couldn’t do so sooner because of restrictions in other countries, a small number of reuniting family members, plus foreign nationals who are exempt to Canada’s current border measures.

“The CBSA works closely with PHAC to help prevent the spread of (the) novel coronavirus into Canada at all international ports of entry,” said spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.

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Purdy also said public health officials are responsible for advising the CBSA of any required screening measures used at the border to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases into Canada.

Contact-tracing app

Another new measure the government does support, and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has talked about publicly, is a nationwide contact-tracing app.

The app, which the government says will be voluntary, will use location tracking features on cellphones to monitor where people go and inform them if they come into contact with anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, including details about how close the person was and how long contact lasted.

Read more: Roll out of coronavirus contact tracing app delayed in Ontario  

Trudeau said in June the app would first be available in Ontario in early July and then rolled out to the entire country sometime later this summer.

At the land border, meanwhile, the presence of public health officials is being welcomed as a positive but long overdue step in the right direction.

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Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the union that represents CBSA officers, has been asking for public health officials to be stationed at all major ports of entry since the pandemic began. He said having medical experts on-site will not only improve screening for COVID-19, but it will also create a safer working environment for border officials and provide much-needed guidance and expertise.

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As for the recent spike in international air travel, Fortin believes the CBSA is prepared to handle the increase, which he said is likely due to an uptick in migrant workers and international students arriving in Canada for the summer.

“If the (number of) travellers keeps increasing, I’m sure that the amount of officers will be there to address the concerns and to be able to work this out,” he said.

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Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in Canada, there have been roughly 105,000 confirmed cases and 8,684 deaths.

According to public health officials, the percentage of cases linked to travel declined as community transmission and local outbreaks, including at long-term care facilities, accelerated.

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Open data from Ontario Public Health shows roughly 37 per cent of reported COVID-19 infections in March were linked to travel. By June, travel-related transmission of the virus in Ontario fell to just 1.5 per cent of new cases.

Nationally, about four per cent of COVID-19 cases are linked to travel outside Canada, roughly 4,300 infections, while 89 per cent, or about 92,000 cases, are linked to community spread, according to PHAC.