A lone passenger stands outside the International Arrivals area at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. As the federal government prepares to slap new restrictions on foreign arrivals, Health Canada data suggest a growing number of infections directly connected to international travel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A lone passenger stands outside the International Arrivals area at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. As the federal government prepares to slap new restrictions on foreign arrivals, Health Canada data suggest a growing number of infections directly connected to international travel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Holiday season vacations coincide with rise in COVID-19 travel-related cases

486 COVID-19 cases diagnosed in recent travellers in December

OTTAWA — As the federal government prepares to slap new restrictions on international travel, Health Canada data suggest a worrying uptick of infections directly connected to foreign arrivals.

While travel exposures account for less than two per cent of all Canada’s COVID-19 cases, the number of cases in recent travellers, and people they came into close contact with after arriving, shows continual growth in recent months.

In December, 486 cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in recent travellers, the most since March and up from 312 in November and 204 in October. Despite mandatory two-week quarantines for international travellers, there were 1,258 COVID-19 cases confirmed in people who had close contact with a recent traveller in December, up from 744 in November and 704 in October.

In the first three weeks of January, 384 travel cases and 607 traveller-contact cases were confirmed.

The figures also correspond with a recent rise in the number of people travelling, at least by air. Land-border arrivals are typically fewer in the winter because of the weather in much of the country, but more people arrived from the U.S. by air in December than any month since March. Arrivals from other international locations were higher in December than any month except August.

Reports of notable Canadians ignoring pleas not to travel during the pandemic in favour of sun-kissed days on foreign beaches angered much of the country in the weeks after Christmas, and led to several high-profile provincial and federal politicians and health officials being fired, demoted or reprimanded.

Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 27, 86,953 people flew into Canada from the United States, and 184,260 arrived by air from other international locations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been promising for more than a week that the government will bring in stronger measures for international arrivals, as Canada fears the impact of new variants of COVID-19 that have arisen in other countries.

That is on top of a mandatory two-week quarantine for all arrivals, which has been in place since last spring, restricting international flights to just four airports, and a more recent requirement for foreign travellers to provide proof of recent negative COVID-19 tests within three days of boarding planes to Canada.

A spokesman for Health Minister Patty Hajdu said “Canada has some of the strongest border measures in the world” and all future measures will be guided by both science and evidence. Cole Davidson said 6,500 phone calls are made daily to verify travellers are in quarantine, and that 99 per cent of nearly 50,000 checks on quarantine made by police have found people are where they are supposed to be.

There are more than 50 cases of the new coronavirus variants from the United Kingdom and South Africa now confirmed in Canada, most, but not all of them, in people who recently travelled into Canada from those countries. The variants are believed to spread more easily, and in recent days concerns have arisen about whether they are more likely to cause serious illness or death.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner said while community spread within Canada still accounts for the vast majority of this country’s cases, Canada has to do more at the borders. She said the most effective option is to impose a mandatory rapid COVID-19 test on all arrivals, and have that test repeated midway through the two-week quarantine period.

Rempel Garner said Canada can’t “hermetically seal” our border as island nations like New Zealand have done, so testing all travellers for the virus, screening them all for the variants, and maintaining the quarantine would be effective and more efficient than requiring travellers to quarantine at a hotel for two weeks at their own expense.

Similar rules have been in place in Iceland for months. Singapore began requiring testing at all airports on Jan. 24, along with using drones and electronic surveillance to monitor people in quarantine.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said a trend in more travel-related cases is “alarming” and that Trudeau can’t wait any longer to act to stop it.

“With the catastrophic situation we are in, we cannot afford a spike because of non-essential travel,” Singh said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.

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