U.S.-Canada border crossings are increasing. Here's what needs to happen to keep COVID-19 out

WATCH: Why reopening the Canada-U.S. border too soon could mean a ‘second wave’ of the novel coronavirus

As the United States grapples with an avalanche of new cases of the novel coronavirus, the border between the country and Canada remains closed to non-essential travel. 

But even with the border shut, there has been a recent increase in land border crossings the last few weeks, according to data from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

By the end of April, around 112,000 to 115,000 people crossed land borders into Canada, which was about a 90 per cent drop from the same period last year. But in the last few weeks, that number has swelled, reaching about 172,000 in the first week of July, according to public data from the CBSA. 

The agency told Global News that this is due to crossings by U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who meet entry requirements, which include immediate family members of Canadians — a recent exception — returning citizens or permanent residents coming home after initial lockdown measures, those travelling for work and study, and essential workers.

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The border will likely remain closed to non-essential travel until the end of August, government sources told the Canadian Press this week, as the closure has been extended consistently on a month-to-month basis since March. 

The surge of coronavirus cases in the U.S. has understandably made Canadians nervous that more land border crossings will bring the virus — especially as Canada’s overall cases have been declining. To ensure safety, further policies and procedures should be implemented to help protect Canadians from outbreaks stemming from down south, experts told Global News. 

Safety measures currently in place

Currently, at all land border crossings, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) advises border agents on how to implement enhanced screening measures, Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said via email.

Following continued reports about record-setting daily reports of new coronavirus cases in the U.S., PHAC has added additional personnel at 36 high-volume points of entry across Canada this week. This was done in order to “minimize the risk of importation of COVID-19 cases,” the health agency told Global News. 

The points where new PHAC officials have been stationed receive 90 per cent of all inbound travellers, it said. 

Anyone who arrives in Canada is asked about the purpose of their visit and if they are feeling unwell. They will also be asked about their quarantine plan and if they have a secure place to self-isolate for 14 days, per Canada’s entry policy. Border guards will determine if a plan is sufficient, Gadbois-St-Cyr said.

CBSA officers also observe whether there are visible signs of illness in any person who crosses the border and will refer travellers they suspect are ill to a PHAC staff member, Gadbois-St-Cyr said.

Along with the measures CBSA officers implement, PHAC representatives will take the temperature of an individual if referred to them by the CBSA for additional screening and will ask further questions about who they have come into contact with.

Travellers are informed about the Quarantine Act upon entry and the possibility of being fined or charged if it is violated, and contact tracing is being used.

Keeping the border closed

Keeping the border closed to non-essential travel until the U.S. quells its ballooning coronavirus caseload is ultimately the best policy option beyond individual checks or assessments at the border, said Dr. Sumontra Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in the Greater Toronto Area. 

“I’m talking about a clear trend towards decrease… and clearly, that is not the case right now,” he said. 

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Screening measures at the border, like a temperature check, can only be so effective, as some with COVID-19 are asymptomatic or could be at a point at which they are not showing symptoms yet, explained Chakrabarti.

“When you’re at the border, you’re only there for a very short period of time,” he said. “So a lot of these screening checks that feel like they’re good don’t really do much.”

Even with an increased number of travellers crossing the land border, there have been relatively few incidents so far of outbreaks based on those entries — which says more about the effectiveness of the border being shut than it does about screening measures, Chakrabarti said.

What needs to be done next 

Despite larger numbers of travellers crossing the land border this summer, the fact that there have been relatively few outbreak incidents from travel means policies and screenings, along with the Quarantine Act, are effective — but it could also mean that we’ve gotten lucky so far, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto. 

This month, P.E.I. saw its first cluster of cases following two months without new infections after an American student entered Nova Scotia and failed to quarantine. He reportedly met up with a friend from P.E.I. who then went on to infect others on the Island.

Just this week, a Florida couple was charged under the Quarantine Act when they failed to isolate after travelling to northern Ontario to visit their seasonal property. 

Essentially, travel needs to be kept to a minimum as much as possible with no exceptions for any kind of tourism, Furness said.

One clear concern is that the border may be closed to Americans, but Canadians can come and go as they please and are simply expected to quarantine when they return, said Furness. 

“We shouldn’t be having that. It’s not just about keeping Americans out if we want to make things better,” he said.

“Canadians should not be leaving the country for tourism or business travel.”

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More screenings need to be done, and it shouldn’t be expected that CBSA border guards solely carry the responsibility to assess the health of those entering, which is why the increased PHAC presence is important, said Furness.

Continuing to increase the number of people who receive extra screenings by PHAC officials would likely be helpful, he added.

Maintaining Canada’s ability to spot new outbreaks

Focusing on what works should be able to keep Canada on the right track with the border, said Fiona Smaill, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Smaill thinks the borders need to remain closed for now. 

“What we’ve been able to achieve now in the middle of the summer has been really well done,” she said.

“We want to have a safe environment when September comes so we are able to get our children back to school, and we haven’t blown it by doing something prematurely.”

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Being able to rely on our public health system to catch new outbreaks at their source is also crucial, she explained. With non-essential travel coming into the country, it’s possible some infections will be imported. What matters is that Canada can contain those outbreaks, she explained.

Chakrabarti agrees that small new clusters are tolerable because Canada’s current procedures seem to be identifying those cases quickly, he said. 

Continuing to keep strict tabs on travellers through contact tracing is what will keep Canada in a good spot.

“If something is happening, we’re going to know right away,” Chakrabarti said.

They’re not going to start the fire because the amount of fuel right now is very small.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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