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Science will determine testing needs at border: Hajdu

The United States is expected to open its borders to Canadians early next month, but the cost of PCR tests required to return home could prevent most travellers from venturing abroad

THUNDER BAY – Canada’s minister of health says her government will listen to the science – and the provinces – before determining if they’ll change testing requirements to enter Canada.

The United States on Tuesday announced it plans to reopen its Canadian and Mexican land and water borders early next month to fully vaccinated travellers.

It’s good news for some travellers, but under current regulations, a negative PCR test, taken within 72 hours of arrival in Canada, is required for anyone seeking entry into the country, a potentially costly hurdle that could effectively limit cross-border travel to those with deep pockets.

Day trips to Grand Marais, Minn., or overnight trips to Duluth from Thunder Bay would likely be out of the question for many.

Public health units in Ontario do not offer tests for travel and private labs charge hundreds of dollars for tests. And while rapid antigen tests, available at some local pharmacies for as little as $40 currently qualify for entry by air into the United States, they are not recognized at the Canadian border.

“We are constantly working with our health officials and our health advisors to determine the best way to manage that responsibility, to reduce and prevent importations at the border,” Hajdu said, reached by Zoom on Wednesday.

“We also work really closely with our ministerial counterparts at the provincial and territory because they’re doing the heavy lifting in making sure that outbreaks are managed and we keep our levels as low as possible.”

Any potential change in testing requirements remains to be determined at this point.

“We’ll continue to rely on health officials to give us their best possible advice to reach that goal to ensure we’re doing our absolute level best to reduce and prevent importation.”

Asked if keeping PCR testing in place might create a travel class divide, Hajdu said there’s always been a class divide between those who can afford to travel and those who can’t.

Travel is still being discouraged, although Canada did open its borders to fully vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9 and much of the rest of the world on Sept. 7.

“As we know, it wasn’t long ago we were talking about the emergence of the Delta variant and the challenge that it’s been to control that variant,” Hajdu said. “We know the virus is continually evolving and we made our commitment to Canadians to do our level best at the federal level to manage our border in a way that we are really catching those cases.

“We’re still seeing a level of infection very, very low in fully vaccinated individuals – 0.2 of a percentage point. It’s very low and some would say that it’s so low that it’s non-consequential. Others would say that this is very important, including the province of Ontario. The testing allows us to catch those positive cases.”

Hajdu noted it’s too soon to determined what needs to be done, if anything, for those who have received mix vaccination doses. The United States has not yet determined if mixed doses will count toward fully vaccinated status, though they have said they will recognized World Health Organization approved vaccines, including Astra Zeneca.

That announcement could come as soon as Wednesday. 

“I don’t want to predict what will happen for people with mixed doses and what the next steps will be if their travel is in any way inhibited,” said Hajdu, adding Canada is working with its U.S. counterparts to talk about mixed dose travelling, backed with Canadian evidence that demonstrates mixed doses mount a stronger immune response.

“It’s the data that will set us free and I’m really hoping the Americans will reflect that in their decisions.”

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Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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