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Visitors explore Peggy's Cove, N.S., July 4, 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

As Atlantic Canada plans to open itself up to visitors again, the move also comes with calls for federal guidance on what domestic travel should look like as more Canadians get vaccinated.

Health Canada recommends against all non-essential travel internationally, but is silent on travel between the provinces. The department says it’s up to each province and territory to set their own rules for entry.

But with millions of Canadians preparing to get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines, and planning summer vacations, there’s a growing need to know what’s considered safe domestic travel. The country has never seen barriers to interprovincial travel like this before, and easing out of those restrictions may require a national road map.

Canada’s COVID-19 quarantine hotels are now mandatory for international air travellers. Here’s what you need to know

Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

“As spring turns into summer, people are going to be moving around. We need federal guidance on what’s appropriate for travel. We should all be reading from the same playbook,” said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Toronto.

“Someone with one dose from Quebec should really behave the same as someone with one dose from B.C. We really need some standardization on what’s appropriate while we’re in this bizarre interim period.”

Atlantic Canada’s premiers are planning to reinstate a regional travel bubble on April 19, allowing residents to move between their provinces without the need to quarantine. Newfoundland and Labrador’s participation is conditional on its ability to continue to ease its provincial alert-level restrictions, after an outbreak on the Avalon Peninsula last month.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters Wednesday night he’s hopeful the region’s borders could also be opened to the rest of Canada by early July. He added the provinces are looking for federal direction on vaccination cards, which could be used as a requirement of entry – something Ottawa has discussed for international, but not domestic, travel.

There are many questions around how a wider reopening should work. The Eastern premiers acknowledged a lot still needs to be sorted out, and said that opening could come with some restrictions.

“We still need to determine at the national table, sort of, what that looks like,” Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King told the CBC. “How we travel, what is required to travel and what documentation, if any, they will need. Will masking still need to take place? All of these different factors.”

Dr. Bogoch said once the vast majority of adults have been partly vaccinated against COVID-19, public-health concerns can be relaxed. The Atlantic provinces believe they’ll hit that mark by the end of June, if the vaccine supply is reliable.

When that happens, provinces should be able to make an informed decision about easing back on travel restrictions that have greatly hampered the economy and kept families from seeing each other, he said.

“That’s the whole point of vaccines,” Dr. Bogoch said. “We know there’s significant protection from just one dose. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good. We know the vaccine greatly reduces your risk of getting really, really sick.”

Mr. Higgs argued that after 75 per cent to 85 per cent of adults in his province have received one dose of vaccine, the need for travellers to self-isolate upon entry would be reduced, he said. He’s anxious to salvage a summer tourism season, and to allow New Brunswickers to travel, too.

“Once we achieve our herd immunity levels, then I’d say our quarantine requirements would ultimately disappear. When we have a population that is protected, then we obviously have less concerns about travellers who are coming and going,” he said, during a call with reporters.

“The quicker we can vaccinate, the quicker we can open borders and get back to life as normal.”

While Mr. King also said he’d like to open up to the rest of Canada some time this summer, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin was less willing on Thursday to put a timeline on when those travel restrictions could be relaxed.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.

Others have urged caution in the reopening phase, pointing out no provinces have announced any plans yet to vaccinate children. But children are at a significantly lower risk of serious health problems from COVID-19 than adults, Dr. Bogoch said. They’ve accounted for just 1.6 per cent of all hospitalizations, and six of the 22,500 deaths in Canada from the virus.

The Atlantic provinces closed their doors to the rest of Canada as a protective measure last spring. The region has fewer intensive-care beds, more poorly equipped rural hospitals and less capacity to handle severe outbreaks. That strategy helped the East keep infection rates low – but there will come a time soon when the tolerance for COVID-19 risks can be raised, Dr. Bogoch said.

In January, Manitoba also imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement for anyone entering from elsewhere in Canada. The tricky part for provinces now will be deciding when is best to ease up on those travel restrictions.

“At some point, you’ve got to have an off-ramp,” Dr. Bogoch said. “The key is finding that economic, public-health and epidemiologic sweet spot. And it’s a value judgment.”

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