As the volume of travellers entering Canada through the U.S. has increased in recent weeks, public health officials are being placed at land borders to bolster screening for COVID-19.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is adding on-site employees at 36 points of entry, including New Brunswick crossings in St. Stephen, Woodstock and Edmundston.
Tammy Jarbeau, a Health Canada spokesperson, said the “increased presence” of officials is at the points of entry — including air and land — that see 90 per cent of travellers.
“PHAC officials, including quarantine officers, clinical screening officers and screening officers will be on-site to screen travellers entering Canada at these ports of entry,” she said.
The news follows a surge in new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., with large daily increases in some of the country’s most populous states. That uptick is paired with an increase in traffic across the international border at airports and land crossings, as restrictions are loosened.
Travel across the border has been linked to a new cluster of cases in Prince Edward Island tied to an individual who came from the U.S. with a student visa.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said medical screening for the virus falls outside the job of Canadian Border Service Agency officers.
“That’s a problem,” he said. “We just assume that we can just charge the customs and immigration folks with essentially doing public health work.”
Furness said he believes the health officials will be used for secondary screening if there is an issue, which could be a question that creates cause for concern. He thinks the decision might have been prompted by the recent increase in cross-border travel.
Land crossings nearly double
Traffic between the U.S. and Canada has dropped since the border closed to non-essential travel on March 21. But recent exemptions have allowed for traffic to enter, including immediate family members, who are required to stay in the country for a minimum of 15 days, with 14 days in quarantine.
Cross-border travel is also permitted for work and study, medical care, health reasons and to maintain the flow of goods and services for essential supply chains.
Two government orders currently restrict travel into Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first blocks entry to foreign nationals except for certain circumstances, while the second closes the U.S.-Canada land border to non-essential travel until July 21.
The volume of people crossing the land border has increased since restrictions began in March, from about 115,000 a week from late April to early May to 175,000 a week in late June. The CBSA says those figures include commercial and non-commercial traffic.
The number of non-commercial highway travellers entering Canada has nearly doubled over that time period, going from about 3,300 a week to about 6,500.
Secondary health screening
Mark Stuart, an agency spokesperson, said officers ask all travellers about their purpose of visit and state of their health and look for visible signs of illness.
“CBSA officers remain vigilant and are highly trained to identify travellers seeking entry into Canada who may pose a health and safety risk,” he said.
Officers will refer any traveller suspected of being ill to a Public Health Agency staff member for further assessment, regardless of how they responded to questions. They also consider if a person is able to properly self-isolate or quarantine.
The health agency said all ports of entry, including land borders, always have access to quarantine officers through a tele-health system. Only the 36 high-traffic sites will have that staff onsite.
All travellers entering Canada are required to isolate if they have symptoms or quarantine for 14 days without signs of the virus. International arrivals must also complete a contact-tracing form and provide information to allow for physical checks that they are following isolation rules.
People ‘want it shut down’
St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said he believes residents in his border community will feel safer with the new measures.
“People knowing that is put in place, how people will try to bend the rules and try to sneak through even though they could be arrested, you don’t know — they won’t take that chance now,” he said.
The mayor said his town is in a “tough situation” with the shutdown with families divided and daily life disrupted. St. Stephen also relies on a steady flow of American tourists at its businesses.
Despite close ties with neighbouring Calais, Maine, fears over COVID-19 are prompting calls for the closure to continue.
“Walking on the street or reading comments on Facebook, you can definitely see people want it shut down, they really do want it shut down,” MacEachern said
Travel restrictions helping
Furness said travel restrictions — despite some flare-ups — have been largely effective at preventing the spread of the virus from the U.S. and internationally. But the risk remains.
“It doesn’t take that many people to cause a lot of COVID,” he said. “I mean one person can spark a whole outbreak.”
In February and March, CBSA officials began asking screening questions and taking temperatures sporadically.
Those measures do little to catch asymptomatic individuals. Furness said he’d like to see the use of pulse oximeters, a device that checks how much oxygen is dissolved in blood. That level could indicate decreased lung capacity and the possibility of having COVID-19.
The infection control epidemiologist said the key measure of how well governments are managing the crisis is looking at the response when a case gets through.
“The one thing to be afraid of is someone presents at the hospital, they’ve got COVID, and they have no idea how they got it,” he said. “That’s what’s scary.”