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Airlines slam 'confusion' of new COVID-19 testing rules – BNN

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OTTAWA – Airlines and travellers say a slew of questions remain about the federal government’s decision to require passengers returning to Canada to show negative results on COVID-19 tests taken abroad.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced last Thursday that air travellers overseas will have to present proof of a negative molecular test – known as a PCR test, conducted with nose and throat swabs – that was taken within 72 hours of departure, unless such testing is unavailable.

The Transport Department has yet to provide a list of foreign agencies whose tests are considered acceptable or to establish how airline employees should determine whether a test certificate is valid, said National Airlines Council of Canada chief executive Mike McNaney.

“With less than a week to implement, we do not have the interim orders in writing – it’s from the interim orders that you base your operations and obligations,” he said.

McNaney said the new rule, which mandates a 14-day quarantine in Canada regardless of the test result, will cause uncertainty and “frustration” for carriers and passengers alike.

“We’re very concerned about the confusion that’s going to occur and the disjointedness of implementation that’s going occur. And it all could have been avoided,” he said.

Air Transat vice-president Christophe Hennebelle says Ottawa announced the requirement, which takes effect this Thursday, without any prior consultation.

“It kind of came out of the blue … We had no advance notice,” he said.

“We feel that all that is a bit improvised … and basically the feeling we have behind that is that the government wants to stop travel but does not say it.”

Transport Canada did not immediately respond to questions Monday.

Garneau said last week the Jan. 7 start date was designed to provide airlines with enough time to comply with the new rules, and that the government will try to provide information on where testing is available abroad.

His announcement comes as a devastated airline sector continues to bleed cash following a collapse in demand caused by the pandemic.

It also arrives amid growing criticism of the federal sick-leave benefit that pays $500 per week for up to two weeks to Canadians quarantined after touching down from abroad, including after vacations.

Some federal and provincial politicians are among those who chose to travel beyond Canada’s borders over the holidays, despite public health recommendations against non-essential travel.

As of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, passengers returning from countries where PCR testing is “unavailable” will be required to stay at a “designated quarantine facility” for two weeks upon arrival in Canada, rather than at home the way test-toting passengers can, according to Transport Canada.

Whether “unavailable” means non-existent or simply hard to access is unclear, as is how passengers can prove the tests’ unavailability to a customer service agent at a check-in counter.

Co-ordinating a test with takeoff presents another potential hurdle.

For the past several months, major Canadian airlines have cancelled the majority of their flights several weeks in advance due to a lack of ticket purchases. That passengers often find their flights rescheduled for days later, rendering any test taken 48 hours before the initially planned departure invalid for the rebooked flight.

“We have to scramble around. If the flight has changed it makes it worse, especially if we took the test,” said Perry Cohen, a 74-year-old Torontonian who spends roughly half the year in Florida.

“That’s not right. That’s not fair. It’s just going to aggravate people, and they’ve got enough stress with COVID. They don’t need this on their heads,” he said from a retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Fla., about 65 kilometres north of Miami.

“The 7th is not far away. And they didn’t even set the rules to the game yet.”

Airlines had hoped for a testing framework that would cut down quarantine times, modelled after pilot projects launched last year.

One ongoing program tests Canadians voluntarily on arrival at the Calgary airport, with mandatory self-quarantine for up to 48 hours. If the results of that COVID-19 test are negative, participants can leave, but must monitor their symptoms until a second swab six or seven days after touchdown.

Many countries rely on testing to curtail quarantines.

“If you get to Finland, which has very good results in the control of the pandemic, you get rapid testing at the airport and then you take a second test a few days later, and if both tests are negative then you can snap out of the quarantine. That makes sense,” Hennebelle said.

Under two per cent of all coronavirus cases reported in Canada stem from foreign travel, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Nonetheless, fears around increasingly infectious strains of the virus identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa have rekindled fears around the risks of international travel.

Travel insurance will not cover the cost of a COVID-19 test abroad, said Marty Firestone, president of Toronto-based Travel Secure Inc.

“Absolutely not, it’s not an unexpected medical emergency, and it won’t,” he said.

“From an insurance perspective, say my insurance is expiring tonight at 12:01, what do I do if I can’t get on that plane because my test results aren’t accepted?” he asked.

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Air Transat to suspend all flights from Toronto, some Montreal routes until April 30 – The Globe and Mail

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Air Transat aircraft sit on the tarmac at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport on April 8, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

In a move it blames on tighter restrictions imposed by Ottawa, Transat AT Inc. is halting all flights out of Toronto and some from Montreal for the remainder of the winter travel season.

The route cuts will begin Thursday and last until April 30, Transat spokeswoman Debbie Cabana said.

“Continued travel restrictions and the numerous measures imposed by the federal government, including the requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test and to quarantine upon return to Canada, have had a significant impact on our bookings,” she said.

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The cancelled routes in Toronto include flights to Cancun, Mexico; Holguin, Cuba; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Varadero, Cuba; Porto, Portugal; and Lisbon, Portugal, Cabana said.

In addition to those flights, Cabana added that Transat is cancelling its flights from Montreal to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Varadero.

The airline notified travel agents of the cancellations in a memo Wednesday, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

Passengers who paid for their flight or vacation package with cash or credit card will receive a full refund. Passengers currently at their destinations will be rebooked on flights returning to Canada, the memo says.

Transat’s cancellations come just two weeks after Air Canada announced it would lay off 1,700 workers and cut more routes amid a challenging business environment for the aviation industry.

The federal government has cracked down on international travel in recent weeks, implementing a new requirement in January that all travellers seeking to enter Canada provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the federal government is contemplating further restrictions, prompted by the arrival of more contagious strains of COVID-19 in Canada from abroad.

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Mr. Trudeau this past weekend reiterated his call for Canadians to cancel any vacations they may have booked, warning that people who travel abroad could face difficulties returning home.

Quebec Premier François Legault has called on Ottawa to go further by banning non-essential travel completely or requiring that new entrants to Canada quarantine in a hotel at their own expense. Similarly, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called for a temporary ban on flights to Canada from destinations where new variants of COVID-19 have been discovered.

Canada’s airlines have criticized the government’s travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic, arguing that the mandatory 14-day quarantine is overly strict and should be replaced with a testing program at airports.

The airlines have also said the restrictions were rolled out without co-ordination with the industry, leading to confusion and difficulties for passengers. Since the COVID-19 testing mandate went into effect on Jan. 7, airlines have prevented hundreds of Canadians from boarding flights abroad because they did not produce an acceptable test result.

Allison St-Jean, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, reiterated that Ottawa is committed to assisting airlines and noted that the government is still in negotiations with airlines to develop a financial aid package.

“We are closely following the difficult and unprecedented situation that has unfolded from the heath crisis we are all living through, and that is having a particular impact on this critical sector of the Canadian economy,” Ms. St-Jean said.

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Canada's Vaccination Rollout Will Lag 6 Months Behind US, Europe: Forecast – HuffPost Canada

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Express Inc. stock skyrockets amid Reddit-fuelled frenzy – Yahoo Canada Finance

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The Canadian Press

The Latest: Wisconsin to vote on eliminating mask mandate

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin will become one of only 10 states without statewide mask mandates if the Assembly votes as scheduled Thursday to overturn Gov. Tony Evers’ order, but masks will still be required in some of its largest cities thanks to local ordinances. More than two dozen public health organizations, as well as state and local health officials, have urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to reconsider the scheduled vote. Wearing masks is one of the pillars of recommendations from health experts worldwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, along with physically distancing and avoiding crowds. The move comes as Wisconsin lags in distribution of coronavirus vaccines, health officials warn about the spread of contagious new variants and total deaths due to COVID-19 near 6,000. Republican lawmakers contend that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing multiple health emergencies, and mask orders, rather than coming to the Legislature for approval every 60 days. ___ THE VIRUS OUTBREAK: The Biden administration is projecting as many as 90,000 Americans will die from the coronavirus in the next four weeks. The 27-nation EU is coming under criticism for the slow rollout of its vaccination campaign. AstraZeneca and EU to meet in Brussels to talk over vaccine production delays. U.S. boosting vaccine deliveries amid complaints of shortages. IOC, Tokyo Olympics to unveil rule book for beating pandemic. — Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak ___ HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING: TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the President of the European Commission has reassured him any vaccine export controls the EU enacts won’t impact shipments of Canada’s doses from Europe. Trudeau says he spoke to EU President Ursula von der Leyen who he says told him transparency measures taken by the EU will not affect Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccine deliveries from Europe. The EU has threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders, and warned pharmaceutical companies that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule. All of Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come from Europe. Canada isn’t getting any deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine made in Europe this week, shipments are set to resume next week. ___ O’FALLON, Mo. — Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s spokeswoman said Wednesday that the state plans to divert thousands of unused doses of coronavirus vaccine from CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to other state-enrolled vaccinators in Missouri to help the slower-than-expected vaccination process. Spokeswoman Kelli Jones said the administration has requested the return of 25,000 doses from CVS and Walgreens, which would then be re-routed to county health departments, medical hospitals and clinics and hundreds of other state-approved vaccinators. CVS and Walgreens were tasked with providing vaccinations at long-term care facilities under a Trump administration plan unveiled in December. Jones said Missouri’s new plan won’t affect shots for workers and residents at those facilities that have been ravaged by COVID-19. ___ WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is projecting as many as 90,000 Americans will die from the coronavirus in the next four weeks. That warning came Wednesday as the administration held its first televised science briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic. In the briefing, experts outlined efforts to improve the delivery and injection of vaccines. The administration is examining additional ways of speeding vaccine production, a day after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. plans to have delivered enough doses for 300 million Americans by the end of summer. Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s concern about virus variants. But he says vaccines provide a “cushion” of effectiveness, adding the government was working with pharmaceutical companies on potential “booster” shots for the new variants. The Biden administration is asking citizens to recommit to social distancing measures and mask-wearing, pointing to scientific models that suggest those practices could save 50,000 lives over the coming months. ___ LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that the coronavirus lockdown in England will remain in place until at least March 8. In a statement to lawmakers, Johnson also confirmed new restrictions for travellers arriving in England from countries deemed to be high-risk. He says the U.K. remains in a “perilous situation” with more than 37,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, nearly double the number during the previous peak in April. While dashing any hopes that students would return to classrooms after a mid-February school break, Johnson says the March 8 aspiration is based on progress on the vaccination front. On Tuesday, the U.K. became the fifth country to record more than 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths. ___ JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is preparing to roll out its first vaccines to the country’s frontline health care workers. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says a delivery of 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to arrive at Johannesburg’s international airport on Monday. There are plans for shots to be given to doctors and nurses starting in mid-February. Mkhize says South Africa intends to vaccinate 67% of its 60 million people in 2021, starting with the most vulnerable health care workers. South Africa has 1.4 million confirmed cases and 41,797 deaths, representing about 40% of the cases reported by all of Africa’s 54 countries. ___ OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma has reported a new one-day record of 65 deaths from COVID-19. The previous one-day record of 62 was reported Jan. 6, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The department also reported 2,686 new cases Wednesday for totals of 3,388 confirmed deaths and 379,110 cases since the start of the pandemic. ___ NEW ORLEANS — Coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings are easing a bit in New Orleans, but bars in the city will stay closed through the Mardi Gras season. City officials say a ban on public events will be eased Friday. Indoor gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed. Capacity limits on restaurants — and bars that provide restaurant food service — will go from 25% to 50%. Also, New Orleans education officials said students in kindergarten through eighth grade will begin returning to class on Monday. Most high school students will continue online learning until later in February. The easing of restrictions comes as local authorities report that the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests has dropped below 5%. Statewide hospitalization numbers also have been falling in recent weeks. ___ WASHINGTON — White House coronavirus response co-ordinator Jeff Zients says it’s essential that Congress pass President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill to keep the momentum on vaccinations and more testing capacity to contain the virus. Zients says the administration is committed to delivering on Biden’s goal of 100 million shots in 100 days, and more if doable. But his top aide, Andy Slavitt, also says 500 million shots would be needed to vaccinate all Americans 16 and older. Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” has a total price tag of $1.9 trillion, which is making some Republicans in Congress balk. But most of the cost is to shore up the economy. About $400 billion is for measures specifically aimed at controlling the virus, including dramatically increasing the pace of vaccinations and building out an infrastructure for widespread testing. ___ WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s reason to be concerned about the impact of some coronavirus mutations on vaccines, but scientists have plenty of options for adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments. The government’s top infectious disease expert says there’s particular concern about the so-called South African variant, because lab tests have shown that it can diminish the protective power of the vaccines approved to date. However, Fauci stressed the level of protection provided was still well within what he called the “cushion” of vaccine effectiveness. Fauci says one vaccine that’s still in testing is being measured for effectiveness against the South African variant and another strain that has emerged in Brazil. He called that a promising development. ___ WASHINGTON — White House Coronavirus Coordinator Jeff Zients is saying in the Biden administration’s first formal briefing on the pandemic that officials will always hew to the science and level with the public. Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says her agency’s latest forecast indicates the U.S. will record between 479,000 to 514,000 deaths by Feb. 20. Zients says the federal Department of Health and Human Services is acting Wednesday to make more professionals available to administer vaccinations. The government will authorize nurses and doctors who have retired to administer vaccines, and professionals licensed in one state will be able to administer shots in other states. Such measures are fairly standard in health emergencies. The U.S. leads the world with 25.4 million confirmed cases and more than 425,000 deaths. ___ APELDOORN, Netherlands — The 27-nation EU is coming under criticism for the slow rollout of its vaccination campaign. The bloc, a collection of many of the richest countries in the world, is not faring well in comparison to countries like Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States. While Israel has given at least one shot of a two-dose vaccine to over 40% of its population and that figure in Britain is 10%, the EU total stands at just over 2%. Onerous regulations and paperwork in some countries and poor planning in others have contributed to the delay, as did a more deliberate authorization process for the shots. Some drugmakers say they won’t be able to meet their initial vaccine doses because of problems in expanding production capacity. ___ MADRID — Health authorities in Spain say they are running short of COVID-19 vaccines due to delays in deliveries by pharmaceutical companies. Northeast Catalonia, home to Barcelona, says 10,000 people who had received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine won’t be able to get their required second dose administered as planned 21 days later. Regional authorities for the territory surrounding the capital of Madrid also say they were halting the administration of the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine to ensure that those awaiting a second shot could get it as scheduled. Spain has administered 95% of the 1.3 million vaccines it has received as part of the EU plan, according to its health ministry. Only 123,000 people have received the full vaccine. Spain along with the rest of the European Union has suffered delays since Pfizer announced two weeks ago a temporary reduction in deliveries so it could upscale its plant in Puurs, Belgium. ___ ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced the state will get more coronavirus vaccines each week from the federal government. Georgia’s weekly allotment will rise by nearly 26,000 doses to 145,900 doses, Kemp said. That’s a 16 per cent increase from the current 120,000 doses. The announcement didn’t say when the change would take effect. It came hours after state officials said they may not see a boost in their weekly vaccine allocation until April. “Although we still expect demand to far exceed supply for the foreseeable future, this is no doubt welcome news, and we will work around the clock to get these vaccines distributed and safely administered as quickly as possible,” Kemp said in a statement. ___ WINFIELD, Kan. — Public health officials are trying to determine whether a coronavirus variant is fueling a new outbreak at a Kansas prison. Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says there had been no cases for weeks at Winfield Correctional Facility before a “whole cluster of cases broke out,” The Wichita Eagle reports. The Kansas Department of Corrections reported that Winfield’s prison currently had 69 inmates cases and eight staff cases on Monday. Statewide, there have been 5,628 inmates and 1,174 staff members infected since the start of the pandemic. Norman says the outbreak shows why it is important to vaccinate inmates early. They are part of the second phase, along with those over 65 and essential workers. ___ HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe buried three top officials who died of the coronavirus in a single ceremony. Pallbearers in full protective gear wheeled the coffins of the two Cabinet ministers and a former head of Zimbabwe’s prisons on a red carpet for burial with military honours. Sibusiso Moyo, the country’s foreign affairs minister, was best known as the military general who announced the coup against then-president Robert Mugabe on television in 2017. The coup ended Mugabe’s 37-year rule. Zimbabwe has lost four cabinet ministers to the coronavirus. Zimbabwe has not yet received any vaccines. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said government health officials are still deciding which vaccine to acquire. The country of 15 million has recorded 32,004 confirmed cases and 1,103 deaths. ___ BRUSSELS — The European Union’s dispute with AstraZeneca has intensified with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker denying the EU’s assertion that it had pulled out of talks on vaccine supplies. AstraZeneca says it still plans to meet with EU officials in Brussels later in the day. The talks will be the third in as many days. AstraZeneca rejected the EU’s accusation that the company had failed to honour its commitments to deliver coronavirus vaccines. The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker said last week it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from 80 million. AstraZeneca says the amounts in its contract with the EU were targets that couldn’t be met because of problems in expanding production capacity. The EU, which has 450 million citizens, is lagging behind in its roll out of coronavirus vaccine shots for its health care workers and most vulnerable people. The Associated Press

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