With just days before a major Christmas travel rush, the Trudeau government plans to increase COVID-19 testing requirements for arrivals at soon-to-be bustling Canadian airports.

But with internal warnings that the federal government lacks the testing capacity and that airport delays could cause unimaginable delays at airports, Ottawa appears unsure how to handle the surge in travelers.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, federal ministers implored Canadians to avoid international travel. “This is not the time to travel,” said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.

Beyond a new travel advisory, advising Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel, the government did not announce any major new travel measures, but suggested that they may still announce new steps.

The last 24 hours have been a struggle to try to launch a new plan to manage travel, in the shadow of the Omicron variant, before the Christmas holidays.

The way we got here is emblematic of how governments have been surprised every step of the way during this pandemic.

Sources who spoke with Maclean’s They say the cabinet was briefed on Tuesday by at least two departments on how it could speed up testing in time for the Christmas rush, but both warned that the plan to test everyone arriving at Canada’s airports was virtually impossible.

Before now, Ottawa’s plan was to slowly increase testing at airports to “reach 100% of vaccinated travelers in the coming weeks.” Travelers would have to self-isolate until their PCR tests come back negative. (Unvaccinated travelers would have to self-isolate until day eight, when a second PCR test returns.)

Officials warned that truncating that schedule from weeks to days, before the busiest time of year for air travel, would lead to huge delays and queues at airports across the country – so severe that social distancing within airports would be impossible. .

The plans were presented to cabinet in order to allow some flexibility to go below that 100 percent target, depending on air traffic volumes. The proposals suggest making more liberal use of rapid take-home tests and concentrating some resources for testing at the land border.

The department proposed issuing a level two global travel advisory, which asks Canadians to “exercise a high degree of caution for non-essential travel.”

On Tuesday afternoon, those plans were overlooked. Instead, the Trudeau government turned to the idea of ​​reducing travel volume rather than lowering its test target. Instead, they opted for the stricter level three international travel advisory: “Avoid non-essential travel.”

Ottawa also considered the idea of ​​prohibiting foreigners from entering the country for non-essential purposes; reimpose the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers, regardless of vaccination status; and end the exemption of tests for those who make trips of less than 72 hours to the United States.

A source with second-hand knowledge of the convocation said those proposals were not well received by prime ministers. A second source confirmed that “there was not much enthusiasm” on the part of the prime ministers. On Wednesday afternoon, Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney said additional travel measures would be taken. ineffective in this point.

The sources that provided details of the possible measures were not authorized to speak officially, nor to speak of background, since the plans had not yet been finalized.

The Trudeau administration chose not to enact any of those stricter travel measures, at least not yet. That left ministers sitting in front of television cameras Wednesday without much to announce.

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The federal government has already imposed strict travel bans for a list of African countries, even as flights continue from European countries also facing omicron outbreaks. While sources expected those flight bans to be lifted on Wednesday, federal ministers didn’t even mention those measures.

Duclos said an announcement about new testing requirements for travelers is coming, but did not provide details. Regardless of what Ottawa decides, more resources and capacity funneled to Canada’s airports will do little to stop the community spread that is already occurring.

As of Tuesday, Ontario reported hundreds of new Omicron infections a day, and other provinces are seeing cases of superprocessor and community spread events. The variant is likely spreading faster than the tests can measure.

South of the border, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that about three percent of all new COVID-19 infections in the United States can be attributed to omicron – about 2,000 cases a day.

Currently, data indicates that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than its predecessors and more adept at thwarting the immunity provided by past vaccines and infections. Yet at the same time, the virus appears to be less severe and our vaccines appear adept at preventing serious illness caused by the variant.

A private study from South Africa found that, adjusting for vaccination status, the probability of hospital admission for Omicron is 29 percent less than Delta. (The study found an increase in hospital admissions for children with the Omicron variant, but cautioned that the increase may be due to the children testing positive after being admitted for unrelated illnesses or injuries.) This is consistent with anecdotal reports from South African physicians reporting that the majority of Omicron cases are mild or asymptomatic and the vast majority do not require oxygen.

On Tuesday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control reported more than 2,000 confirmed cases of the variant across the continent, but there were no hospitalizations due to Omicron. On Wednesday, Denmark, which has seen nearly 3,500 cases, said it had around two dozen hospital admissions in which the patient tested positive for Omicron before or shortly after admission. The UK has reported that a patient who tested positive for Omicron died in hospital, but gave no details.

The first data from United Kingdom Y South Africa suggests that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine prevent a symptomatic case of the Omicron variant in somewhere between one-third and one-half of cases – but more importantly, it found that two doses prevented serious illness in about 70 percent. hundred of those cases. A booster dose was found to provide significantly greater protection.

The Trudeau administration is taking some sensible steps to prepare. In the call with prime ministers, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau promised that federal financial assistance would continue for businesses and individuals in the event that further closures are required. On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland assured the public that Canada had obtained enough extra vaccine doses and encouraged everyone to receive a booster as soon as they are eligible.

The source said Trudeau asked the provinces to also advance their reinforcement campaigns. Until now, the provinces were moving at a glacial pace to offer third doses to the general population, with most limiting access only to the elderly and immunosuppressed, despite the fact that a growing proportion of the country has reached the point of six months since you received the vaccine. second dose of a vaccine. (Half of the country will reach that point in late January). In the final day, the provinces appear to have woken up and are struggling to make the shots more accessible more quickly.

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In its economic update Tuesday, Freeland also pledged billions in federal money to buy new rapid tests and COVID-19 therapies.

The federal source said that “the main solution is to deal with community spread,” hence the funding.

All of those investments are significant and come after Ottawa has shipped millions of tests to the provinces. And yet, in most parts of the country, virus surveillance has been wasteful. Most provinces do not offer asymptomatic tests; You should report symptoms or be in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. In British Columbia it’s even worse – you can only get tested if you have symptoms. Accumulating evidence across the country has left people waiting days for the results.

In some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, rapid tests are distributed generously. In others, they are selectively distributed in workplaces and schools. In many places, the only way to get a rapid test is to shell out $ 80 or more at a private clinic.

Given that asymptomatic people can transmit the virus, and the Omicron variant is more infectious and apparently more likely to be asymptomatic, it is clear that we are only restricting access to testing because we lack capacity.

In fact, we are conducting less testing today than at the end of 2020, despite a litany of assurances from prime ministers that testing capability would only develop over time. Large provinces are now struggling to make rapid tests widely available, but it comes too late.

On Wednesday, Duclos said the federal government had shipped 85 million rapid tests to the provinces by December, while another 35 million will be shipped this month and hundreds of millions more are expected to ship next year.

Our political leaders have promised countless times since the start of this pandemic that they will be proactive. That they will prioritize prevention over reaction, that things like tests and vaccinations need to be done so that we can avoid travel bans and closures.

But the fact that Ottawa wanted to ban foreigners because of its own inability to increase testing capacity exemplifies how little we have done to prepare.

Each time, without fail, a new wave of this virus has appeared and those past promises have been proven to be lies. To avoid scrutiny, politicians love scapegoats.

The fact is, Canadians are now just as likely to get Omicron from a neighbor or visiting American as they are from a tourist from Tanzania or a Colombian émigré.

Those arriving in Canada will be screened twice, perhaps three times, in a matter of days. Meanwhile, many within Canada struggle to find proof.


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