As calls ramp up for Ottawa to impose stricter travel restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 variants, what to do about the truck drivers and other essential workers crossing the border from the U.S. each day?
While Canada has yet to announce any new travel restrictions, the U.S. State Department hinted in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that more land-border measures are coming from the Biden administration.
A petition signed by Canadian virologists, epidemiologists, doctors and public health officials describes the new, more contagious variants as “a clear and present danger to Canada’s health security and economic well-being,” warranting a much tougher response from Ottawa.
This must include performing “a validated COVID test at point of entry for all entrants (air and land). No one can be exempted from testing, including essential workers and flight crew,” urges the petition.
As well, the group of signatories is pushing for both the Canadian and U.S. governments to vaccinate, as part of a joint effort, the 200,000 to 300,000 truckers and 25,000 to 50,000 essential workers who make up most of the people still allowed to cross the border while it remains closed to non-essential travel.
Dozens of cases of the more contagious COVID-19 variants, particularly one first found in the United Kingdom, have been identified in Canada. A variant swept through a Barrie, Ont. long-term-care home this month, causing a massive and deadly outbreak.
The Canadian government has yet to announce stricter travel restrictions, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly warned that they are coming and could be imposed without advance notice.
In the U.S., acting assistant secretary for consular affairs Ian Brownlee said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that the administration is looking at further land-border measures.
Brownlee was speaking after the government announced the U.S. would be requiring people flying into the country to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of departure, similar to a Canadian measure that took effect earlier this month.
“I know the administration is carefully considering how to manage that border to achieve the public health needs while still permitting essential economic and humanitarian travel across the borders. So essentially, it’s watch this space,” he said.
While border issues have generally been well managed since the start of the pandemic, the presence of the variants warrants action on the border now, said Robert Greenhill, co-founder of CovidStrategicChoices, a group of experts who launched the petition and who study the optimal strategy to manage COVID-19 in Canada.
“If it wasn’t for the variants of concern, we could say we’ve done a pretty good job on the border,” said Greenhill, a former deputy minister and president of the Canadian International Development Agency.
“The problem is the variants of concern are like a whole new pandemic. They change everything and so we need to respond to them with the speed we acted in the spring.”
Greenhill said a joint initiative like vaccinating truckers and other essential workers would be a “really nice example of positive co-operation on health and trade with the new Biden administration.”
People crossing the border should, at minimum, be tested, said physician epidemiologist Dr. Nitin Mohan, a partner at ETIO Public Health Consultants.