It seems like Déjà vu all over again as countries start imposing travel restrictions and screenings in response to COVID-19 surges.
It was three years ago that Taiwan began screening travelers arriving from China in the face of a new virus that we didn’t really know much about.
Canada didn’t join in screening for COVID-19 at the border for months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claiming such a measure would be knee-jerk, reactionary, even racist. In the end, the Trudeau government did impose travel restrictions and mandates, and kept them in place longer than necessary.
As the United States joins India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan in starting to screen passengers arriving from China for COVID-19, the question is what will happen here in Canada?
The Biden administration will require anyone two years of age and older arriving in the United States from China, Hong Kong or Macao to present a negative test taken within 48 hours of departure. Passengers arriving in the U.S. from Toronto Pearson International Airport and Vancouver International Airport, as well as South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, will also need to present a negative test if they have been in China within the previous 10 days.
Infectious disease expert and medical microbiologist Dr. Neil Rau doesn’t think screening is the way to go at this point in the pandemic.
“The U.S. sure isn’t learning from previous experience,” Dr. Rau said Thursday.
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The Americans say they are returning to screening because of a surge in COVID cases across China. The surge came after the Chinese government relaxed strict COVID-zero policies in the face of widespread protest.
American officials told reporters the increase in cases and lack of information on new variants led to the decision to bring back testing requirements.
Dr. Rau, however, said that the Americans are overreacting.
“Yes, there’s lots of COVID in China right now, but we have vaccine and natural ‘hybrid’ immunity as our major defence now. Variants, if any emerge in China, are going to get through to the U.S. so long as travel is allowed, with testing or without,” Dr. Rau said.
He pointed out that Omicron was already in Canada before it was noticed in South Africa and long before we established screening for it.
Dr. Rau is right, there may have been a time – before vaccines and before we really knew how to deal with COVID – where testing and enhanced screening requirements may have made sense, but not now.
In the U.S., 74% of those 18-64 are fully vaccinated while 93% of those 65 years and older are fully vaccinated. In Canada, 88.8% of those over 18 are fully vaccinated while roughly 95% of those 65 and older have received at least two shots with many more having boosters.
Then, of course, there is the natural immunity that comes from infection.
How many of us have contracted COVID over the last year giving those with an infection and vaccination a hybrid immunity, which studies suggest provides even better protection. That is perhaps the biggest difference from three years ago when Taiwan began screening air passengers — we have protection now that didn’t exist then.
As COVID continues to evolve, we can’t automatically go back to the tools we used in 2019 or 2020. Times have changed, our understanding of COVID and who is at risk has grown, our immunity is higher than it has ever been.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says they are closely monitoring the situation around COVID and China, including travelers coming to Canada, but at this point they won’t recommend extra measures. That kind of cautious reaction was foolish three years ago, but it is the right approach now.
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