For the first time in over 500 days, there is a lineup on the border bridges connecting Canada to the United States.
Travellers from the U.S. and permanent residents are lining up to enter Canada after border restrictions were eased Monday morning for Americans who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
But with cases of the Delta variant and resurgence of the virus gripping both nations, is now the best time to reopen?
Some experts say the answer isn’t as simple as a “yes” or “no.”
“It’s like nailing jello to the wall,” Dr. Julia Zarb, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told Global News.
“Every time you solve one aspect of it, there’s some other aspect that pops up.”
Surges of new information and masses of data help public health officials track, trace and predict the spread of COVID-19. According to Zarb, there are too many variables to consider to determine whether reopening the border is the right or wrong thing to do.
“We open the borders, but we can’t really predict the number of people who are going to come over. We can’t predict that behaviour,” she said, as an example.
“The ongoing challenge in COVID is that we have to rapidly move that evidence and understanding into policy and application,” she said.
“Our systems in place before COVID weren’t built for situational awareness that calibrates, re-strategizes things, considers all these perspectives much more like you would in a strategic and tactical assessment in a battlefield. That’s how we have to behave now.”
Delta variant poses threat
Hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases are on the decline in Canada, but national data from the Public Health Agency of Canada warns the Delta variant stands a chance of unravelling some of that progress.
Data provided to Global News from the federal government confirmed the Delta variant, first identified in India, now accounts for 78.1 per cent of all recorded COVID-19 cases in Canada.
But in the U.S., the Delta variant has fuelled a six-month high of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations leading to roaring spikes in cases among unvaccinated people in the United States, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to re-introduce guidance advising vaccinated people to wear masks indoors.
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Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have averaged 100,000 for three days in a row, up 35 per cent over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. Over the last week, the U.S. saw hospitalizations rise 40 per cent as well as an 18 per cent uptick in deaths.
This could pose a large health risk — both for Canadian citizens and travellers entering the country.
Canada is also in a different situation than the U.S. when it comes to vaccination. Canada currently has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. The latest government figures say more than 68 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated while 81.13 per cent have received at least one dose.
Cann said those numbers are “not as high” as they could be — “over 90 per cent would be really satisfying to see” — but they are continuing to climb.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say less than 50 per cent of Americans are fully vaccinated, with 58.2 per cent receiving a partial dose.
Zarb said Canada has all the tools to effectively track and trace possible cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But predicting the way COVID-19 variants will behave once more people cross the border will be difficult, because of how little is known about the strains.
“With Delta, this is now increasing our chances of the virus reaching the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Omar Khan, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Toronto.
Evidence is mounting that the Delta variant is capable of infecting fully-vaccinated people at a greater rate than previous versions, although those who become infected are less likely to see severe symptoms requiring hospitalization. But Khan said the real problem is among the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, who will be at higher risk as they become exposed to more possible carriers.
“People can still get sick. They probably won’t have severe disease or be in the ICU, but technically they can test positive,” Khan said.
“So we’re going to see a jump in positive cases. We’re seeing that right now. But if you look at the ICU numbers and hospitalization numbers we want to make sure that those stay very low.”
He advised public health officials to re-evaluate border restrictions depending on whether ICU rates increase in Canada, and see if they correspond with vaccinated, partially or unvaccinated people.
Children at higher risk
Reopening Canada’s borders to U.S. travellers could also put kids at risk.
Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, said children aged 12 and under — particularly toddlers — are at greater risk of infection than adults, because they are not yet eligible to get vaccinated.
Vaccination also does not prevent transmission, Cann said, which could leave kids either unintentionally exposed or make them prime carriers of the virus.
Khan said this could get magnified as kids go back to school.
“When you increase the total number of students being exposed, the absolute number of cases goes up and that’s going to be an issue,” he said.
Whether or not it’s the right time to reopen the border, Khan said the federal government should “absolutely” be tracking hospitalization numbers and testing in order to properly reevaluate travel restrictions.
But Cann noted there may never be a “right” time to reopen Canada’s borders.
The question is, when do you want to test this?” He said. “In the fall, when kids are going back to school, to university — is that the right time?”
— with files from Reuters and Global News’ Amanda Connolly