Health Minister Patty Hajdu says she remains “laser focused” on stopping community transmission of COVID-19, despite calls for tougher border measures that could slow the entry of more transmissible variants.
Speaking to Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block Sunday, Hajdu pushed back on suggestions that further restricting travel or lengthening the quarantine period for travellers could also have an impact on community transmission.
“People are getting sick at work, they’re getting sick in crowded housing settings, they’re getting sick in the community,” she said.
“And that community transmission is where we need to stay laser focused, because when we bring down cases of COVID in the community, that’s when we start to see the resumption of more normal Canadian life.”
Ontario on Friday called on the federal government to impose mandatory three-day quarantines in hotels for travellers entering Canada at land crossings. The rule is currently only in place for air travellers, who must then complete their 14-day quarantine at home.
The province says there are reports of international travellers booking return flights into nearby American airports, taking a taxi to a United States-Canada land crossing, and walking or driving across the border. The issue has also been raised in British Columbia.
On Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford used his time at the First Minister’s Meeting to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tighten both international and provincial borders.
But Hajdu said Canada already has “some of the strictest measures in the world” at its borders, and suggested Ford could do more himself to strengthen the federal rules by empowering local and provincial police to do more enforcement.
“I would say that if the premier has any concerns about any of those travelers abiding by the requirements, that he has the tools that he could use to enforce the Quarantine Act, along with the measures that we’ve put into place at the federal level,” she said.
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Hajdu rejected suggestions to increase the amount of time air travellers have to spend in hotels, saying the three days was the necessary time needed for a COVID-19 test to be returned.
The minister also said rapid testing essential workers who cross the U.S. border into Canada has so far proven to be unnecessary, pointing to pilot programs that found less than 0.3 per cent infection rates.
“It’s something that would be designed with provinces, with territories, and indeed with the workers and the employers themselves so that we can make sure that what we were adding had value,” she said.
Prioritizing those workers for vaccinations, including commercial truck drivers, would also be up to the provinces and territories, she added.
Provincial and federal health officials have said multiple variants of the coronavirus that were originally identified in other countries now make up a majority of new COVID-19 cases in Canada, and are worried a fourth wave of the pandemic is imminent.
As of April 29, at least 106,800 cases of the more contagious and deadly variants of concern had been reported across the country, a majority of which are the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the U.K.
There is now growing concern about the so-called “double mutation” variant B.1.617 that was initially found in India, which is now seeing 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths per day.
The spread of the variants has led to fears that they could be more resistant to existing vaccines.
While clinical trials have shown the shots are largely effective, they also underline the need for the full two-dose regimen — a point underlined by a new U.K. study led by Imperial College, which found a high risk of infection with just one dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Hajdu said vaccination remains the path out of the pandemic, noting that vaccine deliveries will continue to ramp up in the coming weeks from all four manufacturers approved in Canada.
“We can see the finish line as Canadians,” she said. “So we need to stay focused on taking the vaccine when it’s our turn, being part of that movement (towards) a more normal life.”
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