A person stands in the window in a room at a government-authorized COVID-19 quarantine hotel in Richmond, B.C. on Sunday, February 28, 2021. More than 2,000 people returning to Canada since mandatory hotel quarantines began have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than a quarter of them were infected with one of the variants of concern. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Hundreds of travellers landing in Canada test positive for COVID-19 variants

Hundreds of travellers landing in Canada test positive for COVID-19 variants

OTTAWA — More than 2,000 people returning to Canada since the federal government brought in mandatory hotel quarantines have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than a quarter of them were infected with a variant of concern.

Data supplied to The Canadian Press by the Public Health Agency of Canada show that between Feb. 22 and April 22, 557 international air travellers tested positive for a variant of concern. Most of them, 518 cases, are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which is the dominant variant in Canada.

Another 27 passengers tested positive for the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, and 12 tested positive for the P.1 variant identified in Brazil.

The viruses mutations become “variants of concern” when they are confirmed to spread more easily, cause more severe illness or be resistant to known treatments or vaccines.

Data is not available to show if those passengers are believed to have infected anyone after arriving, but at some point, all of those variants arrived in Canada via travellers, and then spread. There are now almost 95,000 confirmed cases of B.1.1.7, as well 578 cases of B.1.351 and more than 2,000 of P.1.

Those numbers have opposition parties and provincial governments begging Ottawa to take even more steps to keep travellers from bringing COVID-19 into Canada with them.

“I’m pleading with the federal government to stop all non-essential travel to Canada before new variants overwhelm our ICUs completely,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford wrote on Twitter April 24.

Last week, Canada did bar flights from India and Pakistan for a month after too many planes landed carrying infected people. But they are far from the only source.

Between April 7 and April 24, the public health agency identified 165 flights from 19 countries, with at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Forty-three of the flights came from India, 29 from the United States, 30 from Europe and 17 from the United Arab Emirates. Only one flight originated in Pakistan.

Epidemiologists agree the border measures should be strengthened, but say keeping COVID-19 from spreading requires more than just border closures.

“I think the border control restrictions and monitoring is only the beginning, it’s only one cure,” said University of Saskatchewan epidemiology professor Nazeem Muhajarine.

“It has to be complemented with a whole suite of measures. That alone is not going to actually amount to anything, really.”

He said rapid testing and good contact tracing is a must, as is swift action to contain outbreaks when they are identified.

Ottawa has required a two-week quarantine for international arrivals since March 2020, but only since Feb. 22, have air passengers had to spend three days of that in a quarantine hotel. As the variants arose, Canada also began requiring negative COVID-19 tests before boarding a plane, and from air and land border travellers upon arrival.

Another test is now required at day eight. It was day 10 until April 23.

Health Canada has not been able to provide data for how many passengers tested positive after leaving hotel quarantine. It also can’t provide test results for any of the 297 people who paid a $3,000 fine for failing to stay in the quarantine hotel.

Susanne Gulliver, an epidemiologist at NewLab Clinical Research in St. John’s, N.L., said part of the issue is that for all land travellers, and for most of the quarantine period for air passengers, they’re on their own.

Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, all with much lower COVID-19 rates than Canada, require travellers to quarantine for two full weeks after arriving.

Gulliver said three days with supervised quarantine is not enough.

“It should be supervised for the entirety, for both their protection and the protection of the public,” she said, noting if someone gets sick in quarantine they can be monitored to ensure they get medical help if they need it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defends the government’s policies as among the strongest in the world, and says most of the travellers are Canadians who cannot be refused entry.

He also said less than two per cent of all Canada’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 are from travellers, or someone who came into contact with a traveller.

Muhajarine said however that a single case from a traveller, can infect several people in Canada which starts a cascade of community spread that aren’t labelled as travel cases once they’re passed on more than once.

Muhajarine and Gulliver both point to the Atlantic bubble as a place where restricting entry, even to Canadians from other provinces, worked well because they were accompanied by quick government action to lock things down if an outbreak occurred.

Gulliver noted quick action shut down an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant in Newfoundland in February. Nova Scotia implemented a provincewide lockdown Wednesday the day after a record 96 cases were reported in the province.

Australia is similar. Perth and a neighbouring region brought down the hammer for three days recently after just two cases were reported. Similar lockdowns have happened many times in Australia, which has confirmed fewer than 30,000 cases of COVID-19 overall, a rate of 117 for every 100,000 people.

Canada, conversely, has 1.2 million cases, a rate of 3,200 for every 100,000 people.

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

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Regional Airport CEO Graham Ingham has ambitious plans for the airport. (Advocate file photo).
Red Deer Regional Airport revenues climb in 2020

Bringing in more business is the 2021 goal, says director

City council will have to wait longer to hear back from administration on possible alternative sites — if the homeless shelter is moved from Red Deer downtown. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alternative sites for homeless shelter will be explored by the City of Red Deer

Council gave administration more time to return with a report

Quentin Lee Strawberry was found not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with stabbing death of Joseph Gallant in March 2019. (Photo from RCMP)
Updated: O’Chiese man found not guilty of 2019 stabbing death of Red Deer man

Quentin Strawberry found guilty of assaulting murdered man’s common-law partner

(Advocate file photo).
City of Red Deer property tax bills are in the mail

Red Deer 2021 tax notices are on their way. Red Deer property… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Hoglander (36) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Monday May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Edmonton Oilers' Dominik Kahun (21) celebrates with teammate Connor McDavid (97) after scoring the third goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen (34) during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Rory McIlroy tees off on the fourth hole during the fourth round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

Canada , left to right, lead Briane Meilleur, third Val Sweeting, skip Kerri Einarson, and second Shannon Birchard discuss strategy against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. Both of Canada's teams were shut out of the medals, marking the first time ever that Canada did not reach the podium at either the men's or women's worlds in the same season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Canada's Tyler Ardron, right, tries to block the kick by Italy's Callum Braley during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match in Fukuoka, western Japan, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kyodo News via AP
Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

John Velazquez, right, rides Medina Spirit ahead of Florent Geroux aboard Mandaloun to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Darron Cummings
Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Canada forward Liam Millar (23) moves the ball past Bermuda defender Eusebio Blankendal (2) during the second half of a World Cup 2022 Group B qualifying soccer match Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Raoux
Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Most Read