BANFF, Alta. — The last of Canada’s COVID-19 border restrictions are set to disappear at the end of this month, but some critics say they fear the measures have already caused a lasting decrease in cross-border travel.
At the Global Business Forum in Banff, Alta. on Friday, prominent voices who have been arguing for months in favour of the lifting of restrictions such as mandatory vaccinations, testing and quarantine requirements for international visitors said they’re now worried the economic impacts of such measures could be permanent.
In a panel discussion at what is an annual conference for business leaders in Canada’s most-visited national park, Meredith Lilly – an associate professor at Carleton University and a former international trade advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper – said cross-border day trips by Canadians to the U.S. never fully recovered after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
She said her research has showed part of that is due to the heightened U.S. border controls put in place after that event.
“Fewer Canadians travelled to the United States to shop or fill up their tank of gas because of the unfriendly border,” Lilly said.
“Canada is now doing the same thing to Americans. So it’s going to take major effort to get Americans to come back.”
Earlier this week, federal government sources confirmed the cabinet order maintaining COVID-19 border measures will not be renewed when it expires on Sept. 30.
The change means international travellers will no longer have to prove they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Under the current rule, Canadians returning to the country who aren’t vaccinated must show a negative COVID-19 test result before arriving, and undergo further testing after arrival. They also must quarantine for 14 days.
The expiry also spells the end of insisting travellers use the ArriveCan app to input their vaccine status and test results, though the app will live on as an optional tool for customs and immigration.
But Lilly said the two-and-a-half years that pandemic-related border rules were in place was likely long enough to change the habits of some Americans, who will now no longer consider visiting Canada in the future.
Statistics Canada reported Friday that the number of international arrivals to this country increased in July even as they remain well below pre-pandemic levels.
The agency said the number of trips by U.S. residents in July was 2.2 million, 11 times the number of trips taken in July 2021, but still about 60 per cent of the trips reported in July 2019.
“So the picture still isn’t great,” Lilly said. “And three years is a long time for people to permanently change their behaviour.”
Canadian Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Perrin Beatty, who also spoke in Banff Friday, said this country’s tourism industry has now missed out on two summer seasons.
He said multiple medical experts have argued that testing asymptomatic travellers for COVID-19 at the border is far less effective than testing symptomatic Canadians within their communities.
“We’ve maintained these restrictions that simply make no sense. The cost to us, for small businesses in every part of this country, of the friction that we’ve put on at the border has been billions of dollars,” Beatty said.
“And we’re out of step with other countries around the world, we’re out of step with the science, and we’re out of step with the rest of Canadian society because of these self-inflicted wounds we’ve put on ourselves.”
A report released by the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable on Friday aimed to assess the impact and effectiveness of border measures and other travel restrictions implemented by the federal government to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The report, which was authored by four Canadian doctors specializing in infectious diseases, emergency medicine and pandemic management, concluded border measures have been largely ineffective at preventing new COVID-19 variants from entering the country.
It also said there is no convincing evidence that pre-departure and on-arrival testing and surveillance have had a significant impact on local transmission in Canadian communities.
The expiry of the cabinet order on Sept. 30 doesn’t deal with whether passengers must wear masks on domestic and international trains and planes because that rule is contained in a separate order issued by the minister of transport.
The tourism industry has argued masking on planes is also “inconsistent” from a policy perspective, given that the high air exchange rates on passenger aircraft make them one of the safest ways to travel from a COVID-19 perspective.
“But the government of Canada is saying the single most dangerous thing you can be doing is travelling by air,” Beatty said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press
Two deputy chief medical officers resign from their positions with Alberta Health
Edmonton – Alberta’s two deputy chief medical officers of health are leaving their roles — less than a month after Dr. Deena Hinshaw was removed as the province’s top doctor.
Health Minister Jason Copping confirmed during question period Wednesday that both of the doctors have submitted letters of resignation.
“They are still continuing to work at this point in time,” he said in the legislature. “We are in the process of actually looking to fill those roles.”
A statement from Alberta Health said Dr. Rosana Salvaterra and Dr. Jing Hu, who are listed as public health physicians on the department’s website, have given notice.
When reached by her department email, Salvaterra responded: “Unfortunately, we are not able to comment.”
She later added that she respects and admires both Dr. Hinshaw and Dr. Hu.
“They are brilliant, hard-working, and compassionate public health physicians and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside them for these past 14 months.”
Salvaterra, who has extensive public health experience including as the medical officer of health for Peterborough, Ont., joined the office in October 2021.
Her career in public health includes work in “the COVID-19 response, mental health, the opioid response, women’s health, poverty reduction, health equity, community food security and building stronger relationships with First Nations.”
Hu’s out-of-office message said her “last day at work with Alberta Health was Nov. 18, 2022,” and noted she wouldn’t have access to the department email after that date.
She got extensive training in China and at the University of Calgary before joining the health department in January 2020.
Their resignations came within a month of Hinshaw, who became the face of Alberta’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, being removed from her position.
Hinshaw was replaced by Dr. Mark Joffe, a senior executive member of Alberta Health Services, on an interim basis.
“Dr. Joffe will be supported by medical officers of health within AHS, by other staff in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and by the Public Health Division,” said the statement from Alberta Health late Wednesday.
“We expect these changes to have no impact on the department’s and Dr. Joffe’s ability to meet the requirements of the Public Health Act.”
Hinshaw’s dismissal didn’t come as a surprise.
Premier Danielle Smith announced on her first day in office in October that she would be replaced.
Smith has made it clear that she blames both Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services for failing to deliver the best advice and care for Albertans as the hospital system came close to buckling in successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health,” Smith told reporters on Oct. 22.
Smith has not placed the blame on front-line doctors and nurses but broadly on AHS senior management. Joffe, while serving as chief medical officer of health, retains his role in AHS senior management as a vice-president responsible for areas in cancer and clinical care.
Hinshaw, an Alberta-trained public health specialist, became a celebrity of sorts in the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, as she delivered regular, sometimes daily, updates to Albertans on the virus, its spread and methods to contain it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.
— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary.
China eases anti-COVID measures following protests
By Joe Mcdonald in Beijing
BEIJING (AP) — China rolled back rules on isolating people with COVID-19 and dropped virus test requirements for some public places Wednesday in a dramatic change to a strategy that confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.
The move adds to earlier easing that fueled hopes Beijing was scrapping its “zero COVID” strategy, which is disrupting manufacturing and global trade. Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated and the health care system strengthened.
China is the last major country still trying to stamp out transmission of the virus while many nations switch to trying to live with it. As they lift restrictions, Chinese officials have also shifted to talking about the virus as less threatening — a possible effort to prepare people for a similar switch.
People with mild cases will be allowed for the first time to isolate at home, the National Health Commission announced, instead of going to sometimes overcrowded or unsanitary quarantine centers. That addresses a major irritation that helped to drive protests that erupted Nov. 25 in Shanghai and other cities.
Public facilities except for “special places,” such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes, will no longer require visitors to produce a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks their virus tests and whether they have been to areas deemed at high risk of infection.
Local officials must “take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life, safety and health” but at the same time “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.
China’s restrictions have helped to keep case numbers low, but that means few people have developed natural immunity, a factor that might set back reopening plans if cases surge and authorities feel compelled to reimpose restrictions.
Still, after three years spent warning the public about COVID-19’s dangers, Chinese officials have begun to paint it as less threatening.
People with mild cases “can recover by themselves without special medical care,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the China Centers for Disease Control, on his social media account.
“The good news is that the data show the proportion of severe cases is low,” said Wu.
The latest changes are “small steps” in a gradual process aimed at ending restrictions, said Liang Wannian, a member of an expert group advising the National Health Commission, at a news conference.
The government’s goal is “to return to the state before the epidemic, but the realization of the goal must have conditions,” said Liang, one of China’s most prominent anti-epidemic experts.
Dr. Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health in China, also emphasized the gradual nature of the announcement.
The new measures are a shift away from “zero COVID” — but “not a roadmap to reopening,” said Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.
“When implemented, these measures may generate dynamics that fuel the rapid spread of the virus even though China is not ready for such a dramatic shift,” he said.
The government announced a campaign last week to vaccinate the elderly that health experts say must be done before China can end restrictions on visitors coming from abroad. They say the ruling Communist Party also needs to build up China’s hospital system to cope with a possible rise in cases.
But public frustration is rising now, as millions of people are repeatedly confined at home for uncertain periods, schools close abruptly and economic growth falls.
The changes have been rolled out despite a renewed spike in infections started in October. On Wednesday, the government reported 25,231 new cases, including 20,912 without symptoms.
Xi’s government has held up “zero COVID” as proof of the superiority of China’s system compared with the United States and Western countries. China’s official death toll is 5,235 since the start of the pandemic versus a U.S. count of 1.1 million.
Rules were left in place that warn apartment and office buildings might be sealed if infections are found. Complaints that families are confined for weeks at a time with uncertain access to food and medicine were a key driver of the protests.
The ruling party switched early this year to suspending access to neighborhoods or districts where infections were discovered instead of isolating whole cities.
On Wednesday, the government said the scope of closures will be narrowed still further to single apartment floors or buildings instead of neighborhoods.
It said schools in communities with no outbreaks must return to in-person teaching.
That appeared to be a response to complaints that local leaders, threatened with the loss of their jobs in the event of outbreaks, impose closures that are destructive, might be unnecessary and exceed what the central government allows.
The demonstrations in at least eight major cities and on dozens of university campuses were the most widespread display of public dissent in decades. In Shanghai, some protesters shouted the politically explosive demand for Xi, China’s most influential figure in decades, to resign.
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