When fully vaccinated Canadians might be able to safely resume international travel without quarantines, and whether Canada will only reopen its borders to vaccinated foreign nationals remain questions the federal government says it’s not ready to answer.
According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the federal government is still looking “very carefully” at the likely prospect of vaccine passports— requiring some form of proof of vaccination to travel— but his focus remains on seeing Canada come out of the still-surging third wave.
“As was the case pre-pandemic, certificates of vaccination are a part of international travel to certain regions and are naturally to be expected when it comes to this pandemic and the coronavirus. How we actually roll that out in alignment with partners and allies around the world, it’s something that we're working on right now,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday.
This comes as the European Union signals that fully vaccinated U.S. citizens will be able to travel to EU countries this summer, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have rolled out a series of guidelines including around international travel for fully vaccinated Americans.
The prime minister said that Canada is not at the point of talking about what measures might eventually be eased or what the travel guidance will be, and didn’t specify when that time may come.
As things stand, Canada has placed restrictions on discretionary and non-essential travel to Canada from abroad, and has imposed mandatory testing and stays in quarantine hotels on anyone flying into this country, regardless of theirvaccination status.
“We continue to plan for how we reopen the economy, how we reopen our borders, how we get back to normal,” Trudeau said, adding that Canada’s decisions will be based on science.
'EVALUATING THE DATA'
Questions around whether Canada has metrics or goalposts on which it will base any decisions around lifting the mandatory quarantines and other national public health measures have been asked by Conservative MPs at the House of Commons Health Committee for months, with little clarity in the responses from federal officials.
“What we are doing is evaluating the data,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu at a March 12 meeting in response to questions from Conservative MP and health critic Michelle Rempel Garner.
Hajdu pointed to test positivity rates, the spread of variants, and levels of quarantine adherence as examples of metrics that’ll inform the government’s decision.
Some public health officials have said that more needs to be learned about for how long COVID-19 vaccines provide protection against the virus, and have hesitated to put a timeline on when Canadians will be able to able to safely resume pre-pandemic activities such as travel.
“We need to be extremely careful about vaccination passports. I find the idea a little premature. If we give out vaccination passports, what do they show? We are still not sure about the duration of the immunity that vaccines provide…. If you want to use a vaccination passport in order to travel, but you were vaccinated a year ago and you no longer have any antibodies, what significance does it have?” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Cécile Tremblay at the House of Commons Health Committee on Feb. 26.
“Before we talk about a vaccination passport, I would like to have data about the duration of the immunity that the vaccines provide and about the extent of their effectiveness. That would reassure me that the passport actually means that the person is immunized and protected and will not therefore be spreading the virus in other countries.”
Asked about the prospect of fully vaccinated Canadians being able to travel to the EU in the coming months, Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Eric Morrissette told CTV News on Monday that any such move would have to be based on “reliable scientific evidence,” and right now PHAC is focused on public health measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada are highly effective at preventing illness. However, it is unknown whether vaccinated individuals can still be asymptomatic and spread the virus, thus can still pose a public health risk,” Morrissette said in a statement.
“PHAC recommends that all individuals continue to practice recommended public health measures to help prevent the spread of the virus and to help control the pandemic, regardless of vaccination status.”
GUIDELINES FOR THE FULLY VACCINATED?
While PHAC has yet to offer any guidance around whether vaccinated Canadians can do anything differently, saying everyone should keep following the complete suite of suggested public health measures including mask-wearing and physical distancing, fully vaccinated Americans are staring to be told differently.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued interim public health recommendations for Americans who are fully vaccinated, outlining what health measures they should still take while offering new freedoms.
For example, fully vaccinated Americans have been told they can resume domestic travel without taking COVID-19 tests, no longer need to self-isolate after arriving back from an international destination, and can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without masks or physical distancing.
On Tuesday, the CDC took their guidance a step further, stating that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks outdoors unless in a large crowd of people.
In response to a CTVNews.ca inquiry about whether the agency plans to release similar recommendations for Canadians and if so, when, PHAC spokesperson Anna Maddison said that for now all people “must stay the course."
“Evidence continues to emerge on whether someone who has received a COVID-19 vaccine is still able to transmit the virus. It is also unknown if or when Canada will reach community immunity, especially in the context of the increasing number of infections due to variants of concern,” Maddison said in a statement. “Federal, provincial and territorial governments will continue to assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission in communities, including variants of concern. As more people are vaccinated, recommendations about adjusting public health measures will be made by public health authorities.”
Speaking to the state of the science Canadian decision-makers have on vaccine efficacy so far, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday that the approved vaccines in use in Canada are showing to be quite effective, but more data is needed before being able to change the national guidance.
“The data is looking pretty good towards the direction that vaccines probably do protect against a reduction in transmission. The extent to which they do that is an evolving scientific study, but I do think that they can reduce transmission, I think is looking that way… So I do think that there is a reduced risk, potentially, in those who are vaccinated,” said Tam.
In a small step towards providing a target rate of vaccination for when public health measures may begin to be lifted, as part of April 23 modelling Tam projected that should 75 per cent of adults have their first dose, and 20 per cent have their second, restrictions could be lifted without maxing out hospital capacity.
The federal government’s commitment remains that there will be enough vaccines in Canada to allow all eligible Canadians who want to be vaccinated, to be fully immunized by the end of September. According to CTV News' vaccine tracker, just over one million people have been fully vaccinated as part of Canada's mass immunization campaign.