Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the results from a pilot project in Alberta that will allow international travellers to cut their quarantine time to as little as a few days could help Ottawa eventually loosen border restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19, including isolation requirements and limits on who can come into Canada.
Ms. Hajdu is also rejecting concerns that allowing travellers out in public so soon after arriving in the country creates too much risk that they could become infectious and pass along the coronavirus, saying the terms of the project strike a balance between health risks and the economic impact of tight border controls.
Travellers will be able to get tested upon arrival and then leave quarantine as soon as they receive a negative result so long as they follow a list of enhanced public-health measures, monitor symptoms and get tested again after six or seven days. The project begins Nov. 2.
The program could expand to other provinces as the federal government looks for ways to ease border restrictions, which have devastated the travel industry and made it almost impossible for many Canadians to travel abroad owing to the requirement to isolate for two weeks upon their return.
Ottawa will assess the impact of the new rules, including whether travellers participating in the program are tied to new infections, before deciding whether to expand it. Ms. Hajdu said quarantine rules have been extremely effective, reducing the number of COVID-19 infections tied to travel to a tiny fraction of total cases in Canada.
She said the goal now is to find ways to use testing and monitoring to replace quarantine in some circumstances.
“What we hear about at the border most frequently is the challenge quarantine poses to Canadians, but also to various different sectors that rely on, for example, being able to attract tourism to Canada,” Ms. Hajdu said in an interview Friday.
“It will be used to inform decisions that the government can take around the border that increase our confidence that we can actually make changes and continue to see extremely low importation numbers.”
Experts have a questioned the decision to allow travellers to leave quarantine as soon as they receive their first negative test result, which could come back in as little as two days. If they become infected just before they travel or during their trip, they could test negative and then become infectious before a second test can confirm it.
Ms. Hajdu said program participants will be closely monitored. They will also be required to wear masks in public, avoid places with high-risk groups, stay in Alberta for 14 days and return to quarantine if they have any symptoms.
“The idea that people are just released and they’re just wandering around, not having to check in, not having to report their symptoms and not being monitored by public health is probably a little bit overblown,” she said.
“I’m comfortable with the testing parameters and that it has a high degree of oversight on the participants. There’s a rigorous approach using monitoring and testing.”
Premier Jason Kenney said the new measures are part of an effort to help the travel industry and allow people to return to normal in a province that has taken a lighter touch with COVID-19 restrictions. Alberta has also started a program to allow outgoing travellers to pay for private testing if that is required at their destination.
Alberta is one of several provinces currently seeing a surge in cases. It has repeatedly set records for new daily infections in recent weeks, with 432 cases reported on Friday. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 300 people have died and there are currently 112 in hospital.
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