The Canadian government has not been tracking how many residents returning from abroad got their vaccines while away, leaving a gap in its understanding of how many people in the country have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
International borders are federally managed by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), but the data collection has been left to the provinces and territories, which do not have direct access to incoming travellers. The data are only being collected at the provincial or territorial level when a person voluntarily provides that information to local public-health authorities. Some travellers say this is creating a jurisdictional quagmire, with confusion over how or where to register vaccinations received abroad.
About 300,000 Canadian snowbirds were estimated to have travelled to the United States this past winter season, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association.
British Columbia resident Cori Padula travelled to Arizona on a family matter in January. While there, she received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
When she returned to Canada in April, Ms. Padula tried hard to get her vaccinations registered in B.C. She made multiple attempts, from asking to register with her family doctor to writing to her MLA, contacting her local public-health unit and even calling and visiting Service BC. In the end, she was told that it could not be done.
“It was almost humorous,” Ms. Padula said.
Referring to the province’s count of vaccinated residents, she said, “I just want to be included.”
The Globe and Mail contacted the health departments of five American states that are popular destinations for Canadians, including Arizona and Florida. They did not provide data on how many Canadians received a vaccination in their state.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu recently told reporters that vaccination rates, along with case counts, “are very important factors” that the government considers when easing pandemic border measures.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is responsible for directing the CBSA to begin collecting vaccine status information at the border, according to CBSA spokesperson Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr. But the federal health agency issued a statement that did not address the CBSA’s position.
“As the Public Health Agency of Canada’s coverage data is obtained from provincial and territorial immunization registries, the Agency is not able to track vaccinations obtained by Canadians outside of the country,” Tammy Jarbeau, spokesperson for Health Canada and PHAC, said in a written statement.
Neither Ms. Hajdu’s office nor PHAC addressed the question of whether they would direct CBSA to start this tracking.
The Conservatives and NDP both issued statements critical of the government’s handling of border issues during the pandemic.
NDP health critic Don Davies said in a statement that data collection is “critical” to pandemic policy-making, highlighting its importance “to help inform and plan proper public-health responses.”
“From PHAC to CBSA, there has been a continuing failure to ensure we have fulsome and accurate data,” Mr. Davies said. “The failure of CBSA to collect data on returning Canadians is a glaring example. We must identify and close these gaps.”
Alberta is working on a way to allow residents to update their health records easily, while Ontario lets individuals do so in COVaxON, the central vaccine data registry, by contacting their local public-health unit.
The lack of federal tracking means provinces are left to “fill this gap,” said Tom McMillan, a spokesperson with Alberta Health.
In a written statement, a Quebec government spokesperson said that supervision and tracking of travellers is a federal government responsibility.
Kelley Lee, a professor of global health at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who leads the Pandemics and Borders Project, an international group that researches cross-border measures to control pandemics, said the absence of these data may affect how many people are thought to be unvaccinated, in turn affecting the vaccine rollout and easing of pandemic measures.
“We are assuming they’re not vaccinated – and that’s incorrect, because some of them have been abroad,” she said. “So then we’re overestimating the non-vaccinated.”
Prof. Lee also pointed out that having Canadians’ health data fragmented by province, and sometimes even down to local health authorities, doesn’t reflect the highly mobile nature of how people live today.
Asked why she wants to be counted among the vaccinated, B.C. resident Ms. Padula said: “I just keep hearing on the news that we need to reach a certain number before we can reopen the border, or we can get on with life. Well, maybe we’ve already reached that number, because those of us who were vaccinated in the U.S. haven’t been counted. That’s my biggest concern.”
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