As vaccine rollout chugs along, attention turns to borders foreign and domestic

Politics

The increasing proportion of Canadians with at least partial immunity against COVID-19 is prompting the release of reopening plans but also sparking renewed pressure to ease travel restrictions both in and outside of Canada.

After a week that saw some of Canada's biggest provinces release reopening plans, Yukon will soon take a major step toward normalcy as it lifts travel restrictions for people both in and outside of the territory who can prove they have been fully vaccinated.

It's a "giant leap forward," in the words of Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, and it might provide a first glimpse at what it would take to restart travel both inside Canada and internationally.

Yukon's reopening is bolstered by the country's highest vaccination rate, according to a CBC tracker: Almost 60 per cent of Yukoners are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has called the territory's vaccine rollout a "model" for others.

"All eyes are definitely on Yukon," Premier Sandy Silver said in an interview that aired Sunday on .

While Yukon currently has the capacity to confirm vaccine status for British Columbia residents and Yukoners, it will need to work with other jurisdictions to determine what verification steps are necessary for others looking to skip the 14-day quarantine period.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Dr. Brendan Hanley, the territory's chief medical officer of health, provide a COVID-19 update in Whitehorse last May. (Alistair Maitland/Government of Yukon)

"We're kind of like a snow plow right now for this, because on the federal conversation, a lot of jurisdictions aren't where we are right now to have that conversation," Silver told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

Silver said conversations are ongoing between Canadian jurisdictions about what a national system for vaccine status verification might look like.

"It would be very helpful to see a national campaign," he said.

Border reopening should come after herd immunity: Njoo

Other jurisdictions in Canada are far behind Yukon on vaccination rates, but Ontario and Quebec both released reopening plans last week. A majority of Canadians have received a first shot of vaccine, and the pace of vaccinations continues to climb.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is holding to its "aspirational" targets of vaccine coverage, saying that once 75 per cent of eligible Canadians have received one dose and 20 per cent are fully vaccinated, restrictions can start to be safely lifted.

In a separate interview on , Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said it's important to keep pushing up vaccination rates because Canada has a lower proportion of residents who have "natural" immunity to the virus.

Asked about the potential end to travel restrictions and the reopening of the border, Njoo said any changes should be linked to the epidemiological circumstances and that reaching the point of herd immunity is key.

"Then once we get to that point, then we can look at opening up the international border," he said.

Njoo also noted that the issue of vaccine passports remained a "live issue," and there would need to be close collaboration between provinces and territories to sort out a system.

Clear plan on border needed: U.S. representative

While plans are being released for easing restrictions inside of Canada, the U.S. land border remains closed to all but essential travel, as the federal government extended the closure there for another month.

CBC News had previously reported that initial conversations were underway between officials on reopening the border, but some politicians in both the United States and Canada are calling for more clear signposts for easing restrictions.

New York congressman Brian Higgins told Barton on Sunday that he was looking for a bi-national plan on reopening with the goal of "at the very least expanding that category of essential traveller to include those that have property in Canada that live in the United States, loved ones that have been separated and business transactions."

Higgins said U.S. President Joe Biden has said the U.S. should aim for a return to normalcy by July 4.

"For us along the U.S.-Canadian border, a sense of normalcy is getting the border open," he said.

Higgins argued that fully vaccinated people on both sides of the border should be able to travel freely, giving guidance released recently by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The western New York congressman, who co-chairs the Northern Border Caucus in the House of Representatives, criticized the lack of information released by the Canadian government, along with its decision to extend border closures. He also said Canadians looking to receive vaccinations in the U.S. should be considered essential travellers.

PHAC recently clarified that those returning from getting a vaccination south of the border must still abide by testing and quarantine measures.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also said crossing the border solely for vaccination purposes is not allowed.

'Let's have a plan,' says Ontario mayor

Sarnia, Ont., Mayor Mike Bradley said in an interview on Sunday that there doesn't seem to be much traction around the idea of allowing Canadians to more easily travel to get vaccinated in the U.S. or of importing vaccines from states with surpluses, such as neighbouring Michigan.

"The other suggestion was that we should be allowed to bring vaccine in from the U.S. … and public health [authorities are] saying to us at the local level that there are just too many complications to do that."

The longtime mayor said he supports the idea of allowing smoother travel for people who are vaccinated, but there was resistance from the Canadian side of the border.

Above all, Bradley said, clarity is needed.

"Let's have a plan. If it's July 1 for one sector or Aug. 1 or Labour Day, let the communities know so that we can prepare for it."

There is a meeting planned between a group of Ontario border mayors and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair this Friday.

"The minister has met with this group of border mayors twice previously during the pandemic to consult with the mayors about the implementation of the strong but necessary public health measures our government has implemented to protect Canadians and to fight the spread of COVID-19," James Cudmore, Blair's director of communications, said in a statement.

Cudmore said the meeting would also cover the issue of cross-border gun trafficking.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christian Paas-Lang is an Associate Producer with The House.

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