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A man makes his way through Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The federal government will soon require air travellers to prove that they have tested negative for COVID-19 before entering Canada.

Travellers will need to show proof of a negative PCR test – not a rapid antigen test – done in the three days prior to arrival, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said. He said the plan will be rolled out quickly but did not give a specific timeline.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the 14-day quarantine period will remain in place for travellers entering the country, and that there will be more Canada Border Services Agency officers at airports “to ensure that travellers understand their quarantine obligations.”

Mr. Blair warned that those who do not comply with quarantine could face up to six months in jail, or up to $750,000 in fines.

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The measures aim to limit spread of the virus, with COVID-19 variants emerging in other countries such as Britain and South Africa. Members of the federal opposition said in a statement that the initiative was long overdue and pushed for more details.

“The government has had months to implement a system and today put forward a haphazard announcement that is a response to headlines rather than an actual thoughtful and transparent plan,” said a press release from Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel Garner and Pierre Paul-Hus.

“The lack of details around this announcement is causing panic among Canadians currently abroad.”

Ontario and Toronto announced record numbers of new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, with the city exceeding 1,000 daily cases for the first time. More than half of the new cases were people between the age of 20 and 49, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa said.

Dr. de Villa suggested that the city’s latest rise in COVID-19 cases was likely not from Christmas, because of the lag time in infections turning up, and warned that difficult days are ahead.

“It is now reasonable that we should brace for an extended period of potentially unsettling and discouraging numbers,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters.

Without being specific, Dr. de Villa said the city would be announcing new public-health measures next week that are aimed at creating safer work spaces.

Ontario’s government also released an ethical framework meant to guide the province’s vaccine-distribution efforts. The framework does not state who should get the vaccine first, but says the province should “protect those at greatest risk of serious illness and death.”

“In this first phase of vaccine rollout, vaccines are going to the most vulnerable groups in our society, including those are that are living and working in long-term care homes,” said Dr. Maxwell Smith, a member of the province’s vaccine distribution task force. Ultimately, local public-health units will be in charge of vaccine distribution.

Ontario’s rollout of the vaccine has lagged behind other provinces, and came under criticism for closing clinics over the holidays. As of Wednesday, Ontario has administered 18,606 of its allotted 96,000 doses, and has focused on immunizing health care workers.

“The first distribution of the Pfizer vaccine has been through a select number of hospitals due to the requirement to keep the vaccine at an extremely low temperature,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health. Logistical challenges have prevented immunization drives at long-term care homes, but Dr. Yaffe said it may be more effective to first vaccinate the staff who work there.

“Our experience has been that outbreaks in long-term care tend to be introduced by workers … because they are people who live in the community. And if they’re in a community with a lot of transmission, they can then bring it into the facility,” she said. “One of the most important ways of reaching long-term care homes is through the workers.”

Dr. Yaffe said the province will begin to vaccinate residents at long-term care homes this week, upon arrival of the Moderna vaccine.

Rick Hillier, head of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, suggested on Tuesday that Health Canada consider making the Moderna vaccine a single-dose regimen to speed up the vaccination process. According to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Moderna shot is 80-per-cent effective after one dose.

British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Tuesday that Mr. Hillier’s idea has merit.

British Columbia has administered 11,930 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, “about half of what we have received so far” according to Dr. Henry. She said B.C. has started to receive doses of the Moderna vaccine, and is ramping up its immunization capacity with a goal of vaccinating 400,000 people by March 31.

Britain authorized the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine Wednesday, which has been less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in trials, but is easier to store and transport.

Health Canada said in a statement that it has been reviewing the AstraZeneca vaccine since October, but is waiting on more data from the pharmaceutical giant.

“Health Canada cannot provide a definite timeline for the completion of the review at this time,” the statement said.

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