With the news that the Canada-U.S. border restrictions are set to lift come November, Canadians might find themselves loading up on gas and preparing to take advantage of the newfound freedom. But Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is warning people to continue to “listen closely” to advice from Canadian officials and medical authorities.
As things stand now, that advice is still to avoid non-essential travel.
“Just be careful. We have almost, almost gotten past COVID. We have high national vaccination rates,” Freeland said.
“Just try to do the things you need to do and maybe hold back on doing the things that you just want to do. And I think if we can keep on doing that for a few more weeks, Canada can really fully put COVID behind us.”
Still, if you do decide to travel, here’s how infectious disease specialists say you can do it safely.
Consider the risks
The first and most important thing you can do to keep your travel plans low-risk is get vaccinated, according to the experts.
“That’s going to be, obviously, helpful from a health standpoint, but also from the regulatory standpoint of getting in and out of the (United) States and Canada,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist.
Under the United States’ new rules, non-essential travellers will be asked about their vaccination status at land border crossings, and only those who are fully vaccinated will be allowed through — with no testing requirement. Proof of vaccination will be required if selected for random screening.
If you aren’t vaccinated, your plans will fall apart then and there. However, if you are vaccinated, the next thing to consider is where you want to go.
“We know that COVID has varying numbers in terms of the incidence and prevalence of that viral infection in different countries,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“And so the first thing I’d look at is what is the current sort of incidence and prevalence of the infection within that country.”
Evans said that countries like the United States, Brazil and India have a higher number of COVID-19 cases than elsewhere around the world. However, the U.K., India and Russia have more new cases cropping up on a regular basis. These are all factors to consider when settling on a vacation destination, according to Evans.
Another helpful indicator is a country’s vaccination rates, according to Dr. Anna Banerji, a Toronto physician and an expert on the spread of infectious diseases.
It’s a good idea “to be selective in where you go” and to try to go “to places where there are high rates of vaccination,” she said.
Finally, making sure you’re educated about any specific requirements for things like testing can help keep you safe — and keep your wallet full.
“There may be certain rules in place where you need a specific kind of COVID test a certain number of days before your flight,” Banerji said.
“Otherwise, you can’t return back. And if, you miss the flight, it could be very expensive.”
Staying safe while abroad
Other questions to consider while travelling include: where you’re staying and how COVID-safe that environment is, whether friends you’re visiting are vaccinated, and whether there are any vulnerable people in your household that would be at-risk should you bring the virus home, both Evans and Banerji said.
“Those are the kind of considerations you get into when you’ve already decided where your destination is going to be,” said Evans.
Even if the environment itself doesn’t require you to do things like masking or distancing, Banerji says you can still choose to take added steps to reduce your risk.
Banerji advised prospective travellers to “avoid large groups of people where they may be unvaccinated.”
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“And even though the policy may be very loose as far as wearing masks, I would continue to wear a mask,” she added.
That’s because some regions might have a higher prevalence of COVID-19 variants, Banerji warned, such as the Lambda variant, which is far more prevalent in South America than it is in Canada. Travellers who are infected abroad can risk bringing these kinds of variants home with them.
“You may be exposed to different strains of COVID than what we have here, right now,” she said.
“You may be exposed to the Lambda strain rather than Delta strain, and then you might bring it back (and) introducing new kinds of viruses, COVID viruses, into Canada or where you live.”
Still, at the end of the day, being vaccinated seriously changes the likelihood of any of these considerations becoming a big issue, according to Chagla.
“It’s not going to get safer to travel during the pandemic,” he said. “Being fully vaccinated changes the scope of this disease.”
Armed with vaccines, Chagla said he thinks it’s “reasonable to consider” travelling at this point.
“Just make sure you know your requirements, and vaccine requirements, industry requirements as you’re doing it,” he said.
Banerji added that it might be wise to just wait for the fourth wave to settle down, but she doesn’t foresee “a huge fifth wave.”
“COVID will be around for a while. It’s going to smoulder on and mainly … infect the unvaccinated people,” she said.
“So you should be careful where you go and who you are with.”
Despite the considerations at play when it comes to the question of travel, many Canadians still have strong motivations to try to safely take a trip.
Joann Arpino’s dad lives a 27-minute drive away, but he hasn’t been over to her house in well over a year.
That’s because Arpino’s father lives on the other side of the border, in Canada, while Joann lives in the United States.
COVID-19 forced politicians to snap the border shut in March of 2020, separating Arpino from many of her loved ones. In the time since, Arpino had her first child. Her dad and some of her closest friends have never seen the baby in the comfort of its own home.
But that’s going to change soon. In early November, the U.S. will open its land borders to fully-vaccinated Canadians — which includes Arpino’s family.
“I woke up this morning, and I had text messages from my mom, my sister, friends…I was excited. My friends were excited. My family was excited. We just felt really relieved because we’ve been waiting for a really long time for that to happen,” Arpino said.
Her family has been cautious throughout the entire pandemic. Now, they’re all vaccinated — and she’s hoping they can gather by American Thanksgiving in late November.
“I’m excited that they can come here because they haven’t been able to see my life in two years and what’s been going on here,” Arpino said.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to come over this way and see what I’ve been up to see my place and celebrate together.”