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Travel restrictions and Omicron: What’s changing in Canada, U.S.

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The United States on Thursday became the latest country to announce travel requirement changes in an effort to curb the spread of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant — which will affect Canadian travellers.

The changes, announced by President Joe Biden, include a new testing requirement for travellers flying into the U.S. The testing measure starts on Monday.

The move comes days after a handful of countries, including Canada, quickly clamped down on travel and imposed bans on African countries, as fears around the new variant of concern grew.

Here are the latest travel rules imposed by both the U.S. and Canada.

U.S. travel changes

Biden’s announcement Thursday includes a requirement for all air travellers entering the U.S. — including those from Canada — to be tested for COVID-19 a day before boarding their flight, regardless of their vaccination status.

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Previously, people who were fully vaccinated would have been able to present a negative test taken within 72 hours of flying to the U.S.

“It doesn’t include shutdowns or lockdowns, but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing and a lot more,” said Biden.

Read more: Flying to the United States? New COVID-19 testing rules start Monday

The president however made no mention of any changes to current land border travel requirements between Canada and the U.S.

The new rules come less than a month since the U.S. first opened its land border to fully vaccinated Canadians. In mid-November, the Canadian government also waived PCR testing requirements for Canadians returning from the U.S. for any trip less than 72 hours.

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A background briefing released by the White House ahead of Biden’s announcement also outlined other components of the new U.S. strategy against COVID-19.

The U.S. plans to expand access to booster shots and accelerate access to vaccines to kids under the age of five. It also plans to create new rapid response teams to combat the spread of Omicron outbreaks, and to ship 200 million more vaccine doses abroad within the next 100 days.

Last week, the U.S. also announced travel bans of its own on several countries, including South Africa, where the virus was first detected.

Canadian travel changes

Canada was quick to announce a wide array of new travel restrictions following the discovery of Omicron.

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The federal government on Tuesday banned entry to foreign travellers who have been to Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt in the last two weeks — adding to the list of African countries facing travel bans, like South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, that were first announced on Nov. 26.

Canadians and permanent residents —  who have the right to return to Canada — who have travelled through any of the listed countries in the past two weeks will still be allowed to return, though they must be tested at the airport and would have to quarantine while awaiting their test results.

According to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, the COVID-19 testing requirement for those returning to Canada would still apply even to those who are fully vaccinated, and any tests administered in the 10 listed countries would not be accepted.

Read more: Omicron variant: Canada expands travel ban, seeks booster guidance

Federal ministers also announced new additions to the testing requirement Tuesday, adding that anyone now coming into Canada from a country aside from the United States would have to be tested on arrival and must isolate and await their results.

Alghabra and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday that expanding those testing requirements to American travellers was still not out of the question, though not all Canadian airports would have the capacity to begin such testing for arriving air travellers.

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“The speed of implementation will also vary in local airport conditions,” he said. “There are airports in Canada which can start doing that really quickly because there is excess capacity. Other airports will take a bit more time.”

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That on-arrival test would be paid for by the federal government, though the pre-departure test must still be taken before arriving in Canada, Duclos said. Unvaccinated travellers would remain the same, however, with a requirement for a 14 day quarantine, and a need to get tested upon arrival and again on day eight of their quarantine.

Duclos said that the testing requirement was set to come into effect in the “next few days,” and that he expects more than 30,000 tests to be administered at Canadian airports every day.

Industry groups have since warned that Canada’s latest testing plan could cause “chaos” at airports across the country.

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Daniel Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, told The Canadian Press that airports would not be able to test overseas arrivals without long waiting times.

“Do we really want people waiting for hours for a test in a customs hall?” he told the Press on Wednesday.

“We want to avoid chaos. And we want to ensure that travelers who have booked trips are comfortable to travel.”

So far, a total of nine cases of Omicron have been found in Canada since Ontario’s announcement of its first two cases Sunday. Alberta was the most recent province to announce new cases of the variant, with two more reported on Wednesday.

Read more: Omicron variant: Canada expands travel ban, seeks booster guidance

The U.S., on the other hand, announced Wednesday it had detected its first case of the variant in California, while at least 20 other countries — including the U.K., Denmark, Australia and Israel — have since reported Omicron infections after South African scientists identified the variant last week.

Cases of COVID-19 in South Africa reportedly doubled on Wednesday to more than 8,500, while the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that the variant had now overtaken the Delta variant among the samples it was analyzing.

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Experts uncertain about travel bans

Public health officials and experts have warned against the rush to slap travel bans and restrictions amid Omicron’s spread.

Preliminary data from South Africa suggests Omicron could potentially be more transmissible and have a higher chance to cause re-infection in individuals.

Experts were quick to point out several things, however, including a lack of definitive evidence that the variant was deadlier than the current dominant strain of COVID-19 and the low vaccination rates in South Africa.

While many cautioned there is a lack of data surrounding the variant of concern, countries were quick to close their borders to African nations — prompting a harsh backlash from the World Health Organization and other public health experts.

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The WHO this week warned countries to not impose travel bans and called on them to follow science and international health regulations.

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Read more: WHO slams southern Africa travel bans spurred by Omicron variant scare

Experts have pointed to travel bans as now being ineffective at this stage as the Omicron variant would have most likely spread beyond the borders of the targeted countries.

“Unfortunately for this Omicron variant, it’s too late at this stage, I think. It’s already here,” said Julianne Piper, a research fellow and project coordinator with the Pandemics and Borders research project at Simon Fraser University, in an interview with Global News earlier this week.

— with files from The Canadian Press, Reuters and Global News’ Saba Aziz and Leslie Young

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