Canada has dropped specific screening requirements for travellers arriving from Brazil, measures aimed at reducing the spread of a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 that is now spreading rapidly throughout Western Canada.
The change is taking place as the B.C. government raises the alarm about travellers circumventing the rules imposed by Ottawa for all international arrivals travelling by air. Premier John Horgan said his government may impose travel restrictions unilaterally, after learning that more than 100 passengers arriving at Vancouver International Airport have refused to quarantine as required by Ottawa since Feb. 22. “We haven’t taken travel restrictions off the board, quite frankly.”
The variants of concern spread more rapidly and can cause a more severe case of COVID-19. In particular, the P.1 variant, first associated with Brazil, may be able to re-infect people who have already had the virus, and “current treatments and vaccines may not work as well on cases of this variant,” according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
This week B.C. began to cancel scheduled surgeries as the variants of concern drive caseloads to record levels. On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced that Calgary schools are shifting to at-home learning for Grades 7 to 12 because of rising COVID-19 cases among school-aged residents.
The enhanced screening measures for people who have been in Brazil were implemented on March 31. The government removed references to the measures from the federal government’s travel health notices late on Tuesday. The Public Health Agency of Canada also deleted a social media post that it had only published on Tuesday, which highlighted the enhanced screening for people who had been in Brazil.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office declined to explain why the extra screening was scrubbed by the federal government. Her spokesperson directed The Globe and Mail to the federal public health agency, which did not provide a comment on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked on Tuesday whether his government would follow France’s lead and suspend flights to and from Brazil. Mr. Trudeau said Canada already has “extremely rigorous” border measures to prevent the import of variants from any country.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said the P.1 variant was already well-established through multiple introductions, both abroad and from other provinces, by the time Ottawa imposed the new restrictions for Brazil.
At this point, added screening for travel from Brazil will not help slow the spread of the P.1 variant, which now dominates in the Vancouver Coastal health region, she said in an interview Wednesday.
“It’s too late for that. These variants have been introduced into Canada, probably back in December,” she said. “The variants are here and really it was a matter of time before they started to take over. It comes down to human behaviour and our challenges with people being tired of this and being angry and frustrated and needing outlets.”
The P.1 variant has swept three work sites in Alberta and forced the closing of the Whistler ski resort in B.C. Dr. Henry said the resort community was already dealing with a major COVID-19 outbreak when the variant was introduced from different sources in mid-February. She said those cases were introduced by interprovincial travel, and then spread from there to other parts of the province.
Dr. Kelley Lee, health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, agreed that specific restrictions on travel from Brazil is moot at this point, but she said Ottawa needs to tighten its border controls. “The Canadian policies are not blanket measures – they are full of holes,” she said. “You can’t just pretend the variants are in one geographical location. You need a comprehensive approach that deals with all travellers regardless which country they are travelling from.”
Epidemiologist Colin Furness, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, said Canada missed the opportunity to try to keep out the variants of concern in December, when it first grounded flights from Britain in response to concerns about the B.1.1.7 variant. “Within minutes or hours, Air Canada was taking those passengers and routing them through Frankfurt, Boston, and New York to Toronto. We should have drawn a line in the sand, at that time.” Instead, the federal government resumed flights.
A new report from the B.C. COVID-19 modelling team suggests the growth of variants of concern – B.1.1.7 and P.1 – will drive hospitalization numbers above capacity in May, unless virus transmission is brought under control.
“The modelling suggests we would need to do more than we’re doing now in order to bend that curve down and avoid growing hospital pressure on the hospital,” said Caroline Colijn, co-author of the report and Canada 150 Research Chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.