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COVID-19

Feds lift border vaccine mandates, mandatory masks on planes and trains

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OTTAWA — The final vestiges of COVID-19 restrictions at Canada’s borders will be lifted on Saturday, as federal ministers announced Monday the end of mandatory vaccination, random tests, quarantine, use of the ArriveCan app and masks on planes and trains.

The Liberal government will not renew the cabinet order maintaining COVID-19 border measures when it expires on Sept. 30, but Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos once again warned that pandemic restrictions could be brought back if they are needed.

Duclos said Monday that the federal government has learned throughout the course of the pandemic which types of measures work.

“We will therefore leave open all possible options when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Canadians,” he said at a news conference.

The changes mean foreign nationals will no longer require an approved series of vaccinations to enter the country.

Canada-bound travellers will also no longer be subject to random COVID-19 tests, and unvaccinated Canadians will not need to isolate when they return to the country.

Cruise passengers will not have to do pre-board tests or prove they have been vaccinated.

The controversial ArriveCan app will not be mandatory when the order expires.

“Going forward, use of ArriveCan will be optional, allowing travellers who so choose to submit their customs declaration in advance at major airports,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

So far that option is available at international airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but that will be expanded to include Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, Halifax and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

With the cabinet order gone, travellers will not have to self-monitor or report symptoms of COVID-19 anymore but they are still instructed not to travel when sick.

COVID-19 is still considered a communicable disease under the Quarantine Act, and federal officials say travellers who become sick en route or when they arrive in Canada should flag a flight attendant, cruise staff, or a border services officer.

“Border agents and public health officials have the ability to keep screening people and advise them on the right things to do if they happen to be infected with COVID-19 or other diseases,” Duclos said.

“If people enter Canada and find out that they have been infected with COVID-19 then they will need to follow local public health measures.”

People who already started their quarantine or testing regime in the 14 days before Oct. 1 will not have to continue once the changes come into effect.

The five federal ministers making the announcement said the changes are informed by science and epidemiology, adding that modelling indicates the peak of the latest wave of the disease has “largely passed.”

But they did face questions about whether the move is at least partially politically motivated as the Liberals contend with the newly elected Opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre.

Duclos said public health data suggests COVID-19 cases imported into the country by travellers are having a minor effect on the epidemiology in Canada.

“There was a sense that these border measures were no longer effective, or no longer justified in the circumstance that we’re in right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday at a separate news conference on Parliament Hill.

He said the best way to fend off the possibility of reinstating border restrictions is for people to get their COVID-19 booster shots.

“The more Canadians choose to get vaccinated, the more people get up to date on their shots, the more resilient we will be as a country to any future waves of COVID and therefore less disruptions people will have to see in their lives,” Trudeau said.

The pandemic is not over, Trudeau said, and encouraged anyone who thinks so to visit a hospital “where we still see the impact of people struggling with COVID-19.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada still strongly recommends that people wear masks, particularly in crowded environments such as planes and trains.

“The science is clear: wearing a mask is clearly a means of personal protection that is extremely effective,” said Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief health officer.

“I hope Canadians will make an enlightened decision about this.”

Duclos said the negative attitudes of some passengers have made things very difficult for airlines and crews to enforce the mask mandate in recent months, and cited that as a factor in the decision.

“The transmission of the variants of COVID are domestic-based, for the most part, and therefore, this is what we should stress: masking is highly recommended … but it is not something that can be, in a sense, forced.”

That is a change in messaging from earlier in the summer, when the government and public health officials insisted that maintaining measures at the border was necessary to track and prevent the introduction of new variants.

Mendicino said there have been 38 million entries at the border in 2022 so far, more than double the number in all of last year. “We want to keep that momentum going.”

In the United States, New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik went so far as to claim a measure of credit for the decision, which came “following my advocacy,” she said in a statement.

“Our northern border communities have suffered enough from the prolonged closure and restriction to travel,” Stefanik said. She also took an obligatory jab at the president, who declared the pandemic “over” in a recent “60 Minutes” interview, in calling for prompt reciprocal action south of the border.

“Even though Joe Biden has admitted that the pandemic is over, he continues to fail to drop the vaccine mandate for travel across the northern border into the U.S., failing our northern border communities as a result.”

Border-state Democrats, including New York Rep. Brian Higgins and Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, are also among the congressional voices urging the Department of Homeland Security to follow Canada’s lead.

White House officials have refused to say if the U.S. rules will change any time soon. DHS officials did not immediately respond to media inquiries Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.

— With files from James McCarten in Washington

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Two deputy chief medical officers resign from their positions with Alberta Health

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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.

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COVID-19

China eases anti-COVID measures following protests

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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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