Shut down travel between provinces to control spread of variants, experts say

Experts are calling on the federal and provincial governments to take steps to curb interprovincial and international travel to stop the spread of coronavirus variants of concern.

While the B117 strain is driving much of the third wave in Ontario and elsewhere, the P1 variant, associated with Brazil, is surging in B.C. and spreading in Alberta and Ontario.

The BC Centre for Disease control said there have been 1,510 cases of P1 identified in the province, 555 of those cases since April 9, and modelling shows it could be out of control in the province by the end of April. In Alberta, the P1 numbers are still small, with 138 cases of P1 identified, but officials warn it could spread quickly.

Early research in a non-peer-reviewed preprint study from Brazil suggested that P1 is as much as 2.5 times more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain, and the BC Centre for Disease Control said the variant may be able to re-infect people who have previously had COVID-19.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an infectious diseases and critical care doctor in Vancouver and assistant professor of medicine at UBC, said P1 is driving an alarming spike in B.C., filling up ICUs.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, associate professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine and an infectious diseases and critical care specialist, says governments need to act now to stop the more transmissible COVID-19 variant P1 from spreading. (Submitted by Srinivas Murthy)

“I would say we’re seeing exponential growth [of P1] right now,” Murthy told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat Black Art and The Dose. “It’s a race and I think it’s a race that we’re losing.”

Interprovincial travel 

Murthy said that P1 is spreading in large part through interprovincial and international travel. 

“I would not be surprised to see ongoing spread [of P1] across the country outside of the Atlantic provinces [which maintain a strict travel bubble] as interprovincial travel remains.”

He said now is the time for provinces to limit travel to only the “absolutely essential,” and the federal government should consider limiting domestic flights.

“I know our airline companies continue to travel across the country. That should be in question,” said Murthy.

CBC asked the office of Transport Minister Omar Alghabra for comment on limiting travel and domestic flights and did not hear back. 

There is currently a patchwork of rules across the country around border crossing. While international travellers arriving in Canada must quarantine for three days in a designated hotel while awaiting COVID-19 test results and then spend the remainder of their 14-day quarantine at home or wherever they’re staying if they’re not a resident, domestic travellers to B.C. and other provinces are not required to quarantine, as they are in Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces. In Ontario, travellers from other provinces are “strongly advised” to quarantine for 14 days. 

WATCH | Pressure increasing on B.C. premier to impose travel restrictions:

B.C. Premier John Horgan is facing increasing pressure to introduce travel restrictions for people who don’t live in the province, as COVID-19 cases spike in popular tourist destinations. 2:04

B.C. Premier John Horgan has not ruled out travel and other restrictions. In January, Horgan sought legal advice about restricting travel to B.C., but said lawyers working for the provincial government told him he cannot legally restrict non-essential travel. It’s not clear what would be different now.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC’s Daybreak South on Wednesday he supports provinces and territories closing their borders in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Provincial quarantine enforcement 

Chris Graves agrees the rules around interprovincial travel need to be stricter, even if it means he loses desperately needed income.

He owns the King’s Head pub in Winnipeg, and he’s fed up with people from other provinces coming to Manitoba and ignoring quarantine restrictions. 

Chris Graves is the owner of the King’s Head pub in Winnipeg. He’s frustrated at the number of people from out of province who he sees openly flouting Manitoba’s quarantine rules. (Submitted by Chris Graves)

If you travel to Manitoba from another province you must self-isolate for 14 days from the date of arrival.

Graves said many people ignore this rule. The pub requires everyone to show ID to prove they are from the same household and from Manitoba. On a daily basis, at least a few people come to the pub who are openly flouting the quarantine rules, he said 

One recent sunny day, Graves sat on his patio and watched his staff turn away six people in a row, three couples — one couple had just flown in from B.C., another drove in from Saskatchewan and another wouldn’t show their ID.

Vehicles are seen stopped at a provincial checkpoint last year at the Manitoba-Ontario border, where officials are handing out information about COVID-19. Some Manitobans are calling on the government to better enforce interprovincial travel restrictions. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“I need people to come into our place. We’ve been decimated. Six people could be a third to a half of my labour cost that day. I could have used these customers. I don’t want to turn them away.”

But Graves said people need to follow the rules and stop the spread of COVID-19 in order to avoid another lockdown. 

“I can’t afford to be shut down again. And I think that’s going to happen. I see the writing on the wall.”

Graves said it’s frustrating that he and his staff are a policing arm for the government, and that quarantine rules need to be better enforced — or Manitoba should consider blocking the three main highways into the province to stop out-of-province visitors from entering.

International travel

Kelley Lee, the Canada Research Chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University, said stricter travel restrictions between provinces, but also internationally, need to be considered.

Lee is the co-author of a study on the effectiveness of travel restrictions at containing COVID-19. 

Kelley Lee is a professor of public health at Simon Fraser University and a Canada Research Chair in global health governance. She says travel restrictions work to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Simon Fraser University)

“What we know is that COVID and travel are intimately connected.… The less that people travel locally, nationally and internationally, the less the virus and variants are spread about.”

Lee said Canada’s border is particularly porous, calling the rules around international travel a “Swiss-cheese policy” because it has so many loopholes — like allowing Americans to drive through Canada to Alaska, or still allowing flights in from global COVID-19 hot spots. 

“Since we’ve had such a loose international border policy, the provinces are left to deal with it. And then communities are left to deal with it. You’re making your choices about where the battlefront is. That means you’re the foot soldier when you step outside your door then.”

Last month, Health Canada announced that anyone who had been in Brazil in the two weeks before coming to Canada “will be subject to enhanced screening measures,” but the Globe and Mail is reporting these enhanced measures have been scrapped. CBC has reached out to Health Canada for comment. 

Lee would like the federal government to suspend all flights into Canada from COVID-19 hot spots like Brazil, as France did this week. 

Experts say there are too many loopholes that allow travellers to cross the closed U.S.-Canada border. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Vaccines and P1

In the meantime, Murthy’s advice is to not travel out of province or internationally unless absolutely essential — and while travel restrictions help, he’s worried “the cat is out of the bag in Canada already.”

Canadians need to “hunker down” for the next while, he said, and do the things we know work against COVID-19 and the variants — stay home as much as possible, don’t socialize outside of your household, wear a mask and practise physical distancing.

Travellers wait in Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Some doctors say it’s time to limit interprovincial flights to stop the spread of coronavirus variants. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The good news? Despite initial concerns that existing vaccines may not work as well against P1, Murthy said all indications are that the approved vaccines work against the strain and are only “a bit less” effective against P1 than the original strain.

“Lab data shows that maybe your antibody response to the approved vaccines may be a bit less to P1 compared to the original virus,” said Murthy. “What’s likely is they’ll provide you some protection.”

So if Canada can scale up vaccinations while Canadians follow public health guidelines, Murthy said there’s hope we can beat back P1 and other variants — and return to some kind of normal this summer.

Written and produced by Willow Smith.

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