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Dangerous variants threaten Ontario’s new vaccination efforts. Is it time to enforce stronger domestic travel measures?

Dangerous variants threaten Ontario’s new vaccination efforts. Is it time to enforce stronger domestic travel measures?
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As the Ontario government issues a stay-at-home order and closes non-essential businesses and stores, experts say even more can be done to ensure that dangerous variants don’t threaten the province’s vaccine efforts.

Dr. Peter Juni, director of the province’s Science Advisory Table, says domestic travellers should be subject to the same strict COVID-19 quarantine and testing requirements as international travellers, especially in light of the outbreaks in British Columbia and Alberta of the P.1 variant, which is associated with a decrease in vaccine effectiveness.

“A distinction between country-level travel and province-level travel doesn’t make sense,” said Juni in an interview this week.

In Canada, most international travellers flying into the country are required to present a negative COVID test prior to their flight and wait in quarantine hotels for the results of a second COVID test, which can take up to three days. They are also required to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days.

To stop the spread of variants in Ontario “we would need to implement the same restrictions that we have internationally for air travel between provinces,” said Juni.

The outbreak of the P.1. variant in B.C. is reportedly the largest outside of Brazil, where the variant originated.

The country has the highest number of COVID cases after the U.S. and the disease has overwhelmed the country’s hospitals. The P.1 variant is more transmissible and has the ability to reinfect some people who’ve already had COVID.

But any variant, existing or future, is a threat to the effectiveness of vaccines to prevent severe disease, said Omar Khan, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, who says, in general, testing “can give us more epidemiological insight into how the virus is changing.”

He says the high infection rates of COVID in the province are concerning because they present an opportunity for more variants to form.

“I think anything we can do to stop spread is really what we have to do,” said Khan, including stopping more of the P.1 variant from entering the province.

Out west, outbreaks of P.1 have resulted in the temporary shutdown of Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, where a cluster of P.1 variant cases was identified, and reportedly spread through multiple Alberta energy sites and infected players with the Vancouver Canucks.

B.C. has cancelled group exercise classes, indoor religious gatherings, banned indoor dining and recommended that residents avoid all non-essential travel.

On Monday, Alberta announced that an outbreak of the P.1. variant has been linked to an out-of-province traveller who spread the variant to three work sites.

Juni believes that testing and quarantining should be a requirement not only for domestic flights, but at provincial border crossing.

He suggests out-of-province travellers should be required to have two tests, one before leaving and another about a week after crossing a provincial border, with “stringent quarantining in between because people tend to escape the quarantine efforts.”

“The point is if you have a land border to another province that is in another stage of the pandemic, and often has other measures, you should actually deal with this land border the same way you deal with land borders with another country,” said Juni. “Because it’s essentially a similar situation.”

Numerous jurisdictions in Canada already have mandatory self-isolation requirements in place for interprovincial travellers, including the Atlantic Provinces and Manitoba.

But others, including B.C., Ontario and Quebec, do not.

The variants in Canada, which include B.1.1.7 — the dominant variant in Ontario and B.C. — as well as B.1.351, which originated in South Africa, have mutations that make them more transmissible.
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