As Canada mulls possible measures to tighten its borders amid surging rates of COVID-19 and the threat posed by additional coronavirus variants of concern, there are increasing calls for the federal government to act quickly, as well as to step up its mandatory quarantine program.
The latest call comes from Ontario Premier Doug Ford along with Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who, in a letter to the Prime Minister Thursday request stricter measures including reducing incoming international flights and more protective actions at the Canada-U.S. land border.
“We are concerned about the growing number of cases attributed to variants, which arrived in Canada through international travel. We are writing to you to request that the federal government take further measures to limit the spread of the virus,” the premiers say in the joint letter.
The letter says the new measures should be in place for “as long as necessary,” or until the risks of new variants stemming from non-essential travel has been “effectively minimized.”
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, whose city has been hard hit by the pandemic’s third wave, issued a blunter call on Twitter: “Close the airport” in reference to Pearson International — Canada’s biggest and busiest airport.
Close the Airport. <a href=”https://t.co/2E4F2yIR1S”>https://t.co/2E4F2yIR1S</a>
The letter comes a day after Quebec reported its first known case of the variant first identified in India, the B1617 strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant of concern was identified in a patient who had received a first dose of vaccine in January, but nevertheless became infected months later. British Columbia has also identified 39 instances of the variant, raising questions about whether flights from Delhi should be put on hold.
Late Wednesday, India reported 314,644 new COVID-19 cases over the previous 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University — the highest number of infections recorded in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, several hospitals are reporting acute shortages of beds and medicine and are running on dangerously low levels of oxygen.
‘Whole families are getting infected by one traveler’
The New Delhi High Court on Wednesday ordered India to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to save people’s lives. “You can’t have people die because there is no oxygen. Beg, borrow or steal, it is a national emergency,” the judges said.
In Ontario, the situation in hospitals remains dire.
Intensive care units across the province are dealing with a record number of patients, with doctors warning whole families are ending up there together while they themselves are at a breaking point.
“The next few weeks are going to be terrible,” said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency care physician in North York, one of Toronto’s COVID-19 hot spots. “Our system is going to be pushed far beyond what it was designed for.”
Pirzada spoke to CBC News a day after what he said was the toughest shift in his entire career, a day on which he saw approximately 20 patients in the span of just a few hours.
“Whole families are getting infected by one traveler,” he said. “It’s just the endless queue of them coming in.”
All the while, Pirzada has had the heart-wrenching task of trying to answer his patients asking the question: “Am I going to be okay?”
“And I can’t honestly answer them honestly that they’ll be fine. Because I have no idea. I tell them, we’re going to do everything we can for you. We’re gonna give you every medication we have. But we don’t know.”
Buying time through cutting travel
Shutting down travel will, in short, buy Canada time, says Pirzada.
But it isn’t just India that travel needs to be halted from, he says. Coronavirus variants of concern are running rampant in Brazil and the Phillipines as well, he says. And stopping direct flights does nothing to prevent the virus from entering Canada through other countries where travellers from international hot spots might take a connecting flight.
“The fear is, is that we’re going to run into a variant that might even evade vaccines. So we need to slow down the spread of these things as much as possible,” he said. “Otherwise, we start this pandemic all over again. “
Right now, Canada’s travel return system is rife with loopholes, he says. Many can pay a fine and leave mandatory three-day hotel quarantine, he said. There’s no enforced quarantine for those travelling on private planes or the land border, he said, adding the the list of exceptions for essential travelers is a long one.
Dr. Zain Chagla said he believes beefing up Canada’s quarantine measures for travelers might be a better approach than “playing whack-a-mole” in terms of trying to decide what specific flights to ban. But he says, the federal government needs to make a choice.
“Do they want to say, ‘OK, we’re going to allow some travel for compassionate reasons or for life or limb reasons, but we strengthen the quarantine process? Or the opposite? Do we limit the travel coming into Canada from all borders, other than essential reasons?”
‘Not going to end until the world gets vaccinated’
The federal government said Wednesday it is looking into restrictions, and that an announcement could be imminent.
“I can confirm for you that we are very actively considering all and any additional measures that are or will be necessary to protect Canadians and I hope that we will be able to share more of that with you in the next 24 hours or so,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told CTV’s Power Play.
Meanwhile, both doctors say the situation in India is a grim reminder of just how crucial it is that people be vaccinated, not only in Canada but globally.
“We can’t assume that when we’re protected, we’re safe. Because unless the until the whole world is safe, because this will keep happening,” said Pirzada.
“This is not going to end until the world gets vaccinated.”