On Tuesday, in response to the discovery of a new supervillain of unknown superpowers known as Omicron, Ottawa tightened things up at the border. The new measures are necessary – but they don’t go nearly far enough.
The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is still largely a question mark, but there’s reason to suspect that it may – may – be capable of sparking a new wave of the pandemic. It could be more contagious than Delta; it may also be less susceptible to defeat by vaccination.
Scientists should have a clearer picture of how dangerous the new variant is – or isn’t – before the end of the month. Until then, Canada should be following the precautionary principle.
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You don’t dive headfirst into a lake if you can’t see how deep it is. You don’t floor the gas pedal when whiteout conditions hide the road. And you don’t blindly open your border if you lack the tools to confirm that those crossing it aren’t carrying the latest version of COVID-19.
The steps the Trudeau government announced this week include ordering that travellers to Canada, except from the United States, be tested on arrival, and isolate for a short time, possibly a day or two, until the return of negative test results.
These moves are necessary, but also insufficient. The new policy has three defects, each more significant than the last.
First, it’s not clear when testing on arrival will become mandatory. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would happen “as soon as possible,” which he described as “in the coming days,” and “in the days or weeks to come.”
Time is of the essence. Having the system in place yesterday wouldn’t be soon enough. And until Ottawa has the testing kits and the personnel to do the job, it should be searching for stopgap, second-best solutions.
Travellers crossing the border already must show a negative test taken within 72 hours of travel. Until all can be tested on arrival, why not move the testing requirement up to 48 hours before travel? Or give arrivals tests to self-administer, with an order to remain quarantined until a negative test result? (Late on Wednesday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that was a possibility.)
The second defect with the current plan has to do with the virus’ incubation period. Someone who tests negative at the border but who was unknowingly in contact with the virus a few days before might not develop signs of infection until several days later.
Earlier this year, it made sense to lower Canada’s border defences, and reopen the country to fully vaccinated travellers who had tested negative prior to travel. Some positive COVID-19 cases surely slipped through, but given that vaccines are effective at preventing infection and highly effective at preventing severe illness, the risk of travel powering a new pandemic wave was extremely low.
But that was then, when the target was Delta. Omicron could be a whole other story. Until we know just how much more infectious and dangerous it is – or, hopefully, isn’t – it makes sense to more stringently screen international travellers. That means, on top of the existing obligation to be vaccinated and tested before arrival, and on top of new plans for testing on arrival, Canada should also be looking at resuming quarantine and postarrival testing for international travellers.
Such steps may only need to be temporary, depending on what is learned about Omicron. But if more is to be done, do it now. Do it now, or don’t bother.
You have to close the barn door before the horses bolt; build the firebreak before the fire; strengthen the levee before the flood. Hesitate, and opportunity is lost.
The third problem with the new border measures is that they don’t apply to travel from the biggest source of visitors to Canada, and the biggest destination for Canadians, namely the United States. Ottawa this week even lifted the requirement to get tested before returning to Canada for those going to the U.S. on short trips of less than 72 hours.
Over the coming weeks, research into Omicron may reveal it to be less contagious than feared, no more likely to lead to severe illness, or not especially adept at vaulting the vaccine wall. But right now, those are hopes, not certainties. So right now, Canada needs to buy itself some border insurance.
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