As COVID-19 surges in U.S., is Canada lifting border rules too early? Experts are mixed

Click to play video: 'Canada announces border reopening date for foreign travellers'
Canada announces border reopening date for foreign travellers
WATCH: Canada announces border reopening date for foreign travellers – Jul 19, 2021

The imminent reopening of the U.S.-Canada border to fully vaccinated American travellers next month is drawing mixed reactions from health and economic experts in both countries, some of whom are still wary about the spread of COVID-19.

Starting Aug. 9, U.S. citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to cross the border into Canada for non-essential travel without having to quarantine upon arrival. Travellers will have to submit proof of vaccination through the ArriveCAN app and provide a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days old.

On Sept. 7, the same rules will be applied to other countries around the world.

The change was announced Monday, roughly 16 months after the border was first closed to non-essential travel to help limit the spread of COVID-19. It’s a move that economic experts say is long overdue.

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“I welcome it,” said Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“I think the government has finally realized that these measures are excessive for people who are fully vaccinated. It’s certainly a different story for those who are not. … But I don’t see any reason why fully vaccinated travellers shouldn’t be allowed at this stage.”

Health experts are voicing more caution. They say the surge of the highly transmissible Delta variant around the world — which is leading to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and other countries — means Canada cannot let its guard down, even amid low case counts and positive vaccination rates.

Click to play video: 'Canada to allow fully-vaccinated American leisure travellers Aug. 9, all countries in September'
Canada to allow fully-vaccinated American leisure travellers Aug. 9, all countries in September

Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists who was one of the first epidemiologists to sound the alarm about COVID-19 in late 2019 and early 2020, thinks Canada should still have some additional health restrictions in place even for fully vaccinated travellers.

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“I think a brief quarantine would make a huge difference in terms of, what is the best way to contain this virus,” he said.

“From the beginning, by allowing truckers across the border (but denying non-essential travel), Canada has been putting a Band-Aid on the problem. And now the Band-Aid is coming off. And even though vaccines will help, they won’t solve everything.”

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Feigl-Ding also says it “makes no sense” that Canada would announce a reopening at the U.S. border while also extending a ban on flights from India due to concerns over the Delta variant.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s a little too little, too late, particularly if you’re going to start allowing other travellers in.”

As of Monday, just over 50 per cent of Canadians, or 57.6 per cent of those eligible for the vaccine aged 12 and up, are fully vaccinated with two doses.

At the rate Canada is currently administering second doses, over 70 per cent of all Canadians could be fully immunized by the time restrictions for U.S. travellers are lifted.

But Feigl-Ding warns the vaccine has always been a strong defence against severe illness or death, not necessarily infection or transmissibility of the virus. And with the Delta variant proving to be slightly more resistant to vaccines along with being more transmissible, reopening the border is an invitation to more disease.

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“Vaccines are good, but they’re not airtight,” he said. “They create a fence, and a good fence, but a fence is still porous — it’s not a good border wall.

“I’m a bigger fan of vaccines combined with other mitigation measures, be they masks or testing or quarantines for travellers. If you layer enough pieces of Swiss cheese together, there will still be holes, but it’s better than that single layer.”

Omar Khan, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Toronto, also wants Canadian border officials to ensure that U.S. travellers have waited the full 14 days after their second dose to allow for maximum immunity to kick in before arriving in Canada.

Yet he’s also happy that travellers will have to submit a negative COVID-19 test upon entry, which he hopes will help cut transmission down and limit the strain on the healthcare system.

“If we see case numbers go up, but not an increase in the death rate or (intensive care intake), then that’s great because people will be getting a little bit sick, but not too sick,” he said. “Maybe that’s where we find stability.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says decision lies with U.S. on reopening border to Canadian leisure travellers'
Trudeau says decision lies with U.S. on reopening border to Canadian leisure travellers

The fear, Khan says, is if the virus transmits enough within an unvaccinated population that it creates a new variant that proves to be even more resistant to vaccines.

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U.S. cases of COVID-19 last week increased by 17,000 nationwide over a 14-day period for the first time since late fall, and an increase in death historically follows a spike in illness.

Last week, both U.S. President Joe Biden and the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the spike “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” pointing out that 99 per cent of recent COVID-19 deaths and over 95 per cent of hospitalizations have been among people who are not immunized.

About 90 million eligible Americans have yet to receive even their first vaccine dose. Officials are trying to overcome a refusal among some — particularly conservative, rural white people — to get vaccinated, but experts have warned convincing these groups will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Less than 50 per cent of all Americans are fully vaccinated.

“If you have an unvaccinated group that’s large enough to be causing more mild replication events, creating opportunities for mutations that can cause more severe disease in people, that’s always a concern,” Khan said. “That’s why it’s still a global challenge.”

If hospitalizations and deaths begin to spike along with cases in the U.S. and other countries, then Khan says it would be prudent for Ottawa to reverse course and bar non-essential travel once again.

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He points to the United Kingdom, which lifted all of its restrictions on Monday despite reporting a surge in cases that has now hit 50,000 new infections per day. Hospitalizations, which had been falling steadily since January, are now also rising.

Feigl-Ding hopes the U.K. and other countries heed the warning of the Netherlands, which saw a big enough spike in cases after fully reopening in late June that it had to bring back some restrictions, particularly on nightclubs.

Both the U.K. and the Netherlands, he adds, are about two-thirds vaccinated.

“It proves that one false move, one move too early, and everything can rise very quickly,” Feigl-Ding said. “We’re not safe just yet.”

Chanda is more confident that, at the rate Canada is vaccinating people, the country will be ready to welcome vaccinated travellers from other countries in September.

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He points out that the government’s COVID-19 advisory panel had criticized many of the mitigation measures at the border, and advised back in May to halt the federal hotel quarantine program due to its cost and inconsistencies.

“From a purely scientific or data-driven point of view, there was never any reason to delay other nationalities after we allowed Canadians to enter without quarantine, once they’re fully vaccinated,” he said, referring to rule changes in early July.

“I can see how some people may differ on that, but I think we’re in a good place and we’ll be getting to an even better place soon enough.”

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