Canada is extending its COVID-19 testing requirements for travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau for another two months, the federal government announced Thursday, pointing to a continued spike in infections and limited data sharing.
Since Jan. 5, air travellers arriving in Canada on flights originating from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Macau that are two years of age and older have been required to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding the aircraft to Canada.
Those rules, which were set to expire on Saturday, will now be extended until April 5, according to a statement provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“Despite the data provided by China thus far, on-going gaps in data availability remain a significant concern,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in the statement.
“Extending these temporary health measures will provide time for new, reliable data sources to be made available and allow time for expected domestic waves in China to subside.”
China has been grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases since lifting its “zero-COVID” public health measures late last year, allowing residents to travel both within and outside the country for the first time in nearly three years.
The move led to tens of thousands of new cases per day, according to unofficial counts, the most severe of which overwhelmed Chinese hospitals. Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control (CCDC), estimated last month about 80 per cent of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the recent wave.
Since December, the CCDC has reported more than 75,000 deaths related to COVID-19 in hospital. But those data reports do not include deaths at home and only counts fatalities caused by pneumonia or respiratory failure — a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to COVID-19 in much of the world.
China’s National Health Commission reported earlier this week that the “overall epidemic situation in the country has entered a low level” and that fever clinic visits due to COVID-19 during the Lunar New Year dropped about 40 per cent from before the week-long holiday.
Yet the CCDC indicated Wednesday that infections have “fluctuated” over the past week, marking slight increases in new cases and hospitalizations.
The World Health Organization and several countries, including Canada, have pushed China to release more data, which Beijing has refused to do while accusing others of “politicizing” the pandemic.
Much of the surge in China has been attributed to the highly transmissible XBB.1.5 variant, which has begun to dominate new infections in the United States and is estimated to now account for about seven per cent of new cases in Canada.
The government has also lashed out at countries that require travellers coming from China to show a negative virus test, calling the demand “discriminatory” even though it requires the same of anyone entering China.
Under the Canadian rules, travellers coming to Canada from China, Hong Kong or Macau must take a COVID-19 test no more than two days before departure.
Passengers who have tested positive more than 10 days before their flight, but no more than 90 days, can provide their airline with the documentation of their prior positive, in place of a negative test, the government said.
Health experts have warned, however, that the rules will do little to stop the spread of new variants from places like China, as travellers can test positive days after landing in Canada with a negative test.
Thursday also saw Hong Kong launch a traveller incentive program that includes 50,000 free flights to lure international visitors back to the city.
— with files from Irelyne Lavery and the Associated Press