The FBI said on Wednesday that dealing with the issue of “anomalous health incidents” – widely known as Havana Syndrome – is a top priority and that it will keep investigating the cause and how to protect staff.
About 200 U.S. diplomats, officials and family members overseas are believed to have been struck by the mysterious ailment – with symptoms including migraines, nausea, memory lapses and dizziness. It was first reported among U.S. officials in the Cuban capital in 2016.
“The issue of anomalous health incidents is a top priority for the FBI, as the protection, health and well-being of our employees and colleagues across the federal government is paramount,” the agency said in a statement.
It added that it would keep working with the intelligence community to “identify the cause of these incidents and determine how we can best protect our personnel.”
Sufferers and lawmakers have complained that U.S. agencies have not taken the illness seriously enough.
“The FBI takes all U.S. government personnel who report symptoms seriously,” the FBI statement said, adding it had messaged its staff on how to respond if they experience an incident, and where they can receive medical treatment.
Lawyer Mark Zaid, who represents Havana Syndrome victims, said historically the FBI had “been less than helpful, particularly by claiming victims are suffering psychosomatic symptoms even though they never interviewed the individuals. … I suspect that is about to change.”
To lead an agency task force on Havana Syndrome, CIA Director William Burns recently chose a career undercover spy who participated in the search that led to the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
A CIA spokesperson said: “Director Burns made it a top priority to ensure officers get the care they need and that we get to the bottom of this. We’ve strengthened efforts to determine the origins of these incidents, including assembling a targeting team of our very best experts – bringing an intensity and expertise to this issue akin to our efforts to find Bin Laden.”
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that during a recent visit to Moscow, Burns stressed to leaders of Russian spy agencies that it would be “beyond the pale” for foreign intelligence agencies to cause brain injury and other ailments to U.S. personnel and family members.
A U.S. government source said agencies do not currently have a solid view of the syndrome’s cause.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)
As omicron variant spreads, Manitoba couple feel 'criminalized' after return from South Africa – CBC.ca
A Brandon, Man., couple who are quarantining in a Toronto hotel after a recent trip to South Africa say they feel “criminalized” as travellers after the federal government placed restrictions on 10 African countries due to the presence of a new coronavirus variant of concern.
A day after Lennard and Charlotte Skead left for South Africa, where they’re both originally from, the World Health Organization released information about a new coronavirus variant of concern called omicron, or the B.1.1.529 variant, which was discovered in the country.
The couple, who were in South Africa to access medical care, made several attempts shortly after their arrival to find an airline to bring them back to Canada.
“We were extremely frustrated in not being able to find much [airline tickets] because of course there were hundreds of people, hundreds of Canadians there wanting to get back. Calls to the airlines took hours on hold; it was total chaos,” Lennard Skead said.
On their trip back to Canada, they had to take six COVID-19 tests, which all came back negative, before being allowed to re-enter the country.
Skead says he just feels grateful they made it back.
“We were just lucky,” he said, although it cost them a lot of money to return — a total of almost $23,500 so far for flights, COVID-19 tests and hotels.
In addition, their bags were lost and the food they’ve been served in the hotel consistently contains allergens, which the couple has brought to the attention of staff.
Restrictions meant to protect Canadians
Health Canada announced on Nov. 26 that foreign nationals who had travelled through any of the seven affected countries — including South Africa — in the last 14 days will not be permitted entry to Canada, in order to slow the spread of the omicron variant in Canada.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home, but they must quarantine and be tested for COVID-19.
Four days later, three other nations were added to the list of countries with travel restrictions, which went into effect on Wednesday.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference on Friday that Canada has had strong border measures throughout the pandemic to protect the health and safety of Canadians.
“I believe, and that’s what we hear from public health officials, that what we’ve announced last week on Friday [Nov. 26] and on Tuesday is currently the best set of measures, given the necessity and capability with which we are facing when we’re dealing with these issues,” he said.
Duclos said travellers from the 10 countries should expect to be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive in Canada and be ready to isolate.
“It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers, but we’re ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day,” he said.
Meanwhile, Skead, who is three days into his quarantine, believes travellers like himself and his wife are being treated poorly.
He says he wishes there was a grace period for travellers who were already abroad when restrictions were announced.
“My experience from landing in Toronto Pearson [International Airport] right up into the hotel has made us feel criminalized,” Skead said.
“It has made us feel as though we are not welcome in our own country and that we are carrying some kind of terrible disease that’s going to be the end of the world, despite our six negative COVID-19 tests.”
Planning a trip over the holidays? Expect airport delays, sudden travel restrictions, experts say – CBC.ca
As concerns around the omicron variant grow, infectious diseases expert Dr. Gerald Evans says that now is the time for Canadians to reconsider upcoming plans — particularly if they include international travel.
“What we need to do — all of us — is to reduce the opportunities for transmission to occur,” said Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Hidayet Mugjenkar and his family were set to fly to South Africa late last month to visit his ailing parents. They were forced to cancel when the federal government announced a ban on flights entering Canada from several countries in southern Africa.
“I really just wanted to go and see them because I don’t know when we’ll see them again,” he told Cross Country Checkup. “Now, with all this travel ban and with COVID, it’s just hard to predict when you’ll be able to fly back again.”
Following a previous announcement on restrictions for some flights from Africa, the federal government this week announced new testing requirements for those entering the country from outside Canada and the United States.
Travellers will now be swabbed upon arrival and required to quarantine until they receive a negative result. That’s in addition to the existing pre-departure requirement of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Canada.
“It’s a little bit like déjà vu all over again,” Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, said, reflecting on travel during the early days of the pandemic.
“We’re just starting to understand this, but we don’t have much data. So what the governments have been doing is reacting very swiftly — maybe too swiftly — imposing some travel bans.”
The U.S. government has also announced that Canadians and other foreign visitors must now provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 24 hours of departure, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the country as of Monday.
Know the travel restrictions at your destination
The latest data on omicron suggests that the variant may be more transmissible, but changes in the severity of illness compared with other variants remain unclear.
Still, Evans cautions against international travel as the situation shifts.
“In a few weeks, with omicron already well established on many different continents, we may be looking at the potential for travel restrictions being brought in that are more widespread or perhaps more onerous than what exists at the moment,” he said.
Travel bans have largely targeted countries in southern Africa, where scientists sequenced the new variant late last month. Evans notes that countries across Europe, including France and Germany, have seen recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.
That’s a concern echoed by Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who says some countries have not yet focused their screening to detect omicron.
“They might be reporting no [omicron] cases, but when you get there, there might actually be a lot of transmission that might affect your ability to come home,” she said.
In response to the omicron variant, France now requires all travellers from outside the European Union to provide a negative COVID-19 test.
Dimanche encourages anyone travelling this holiday season to be aware of rules and restrictions in their destination country.
‘Travellers don’t like the unknown’
Canada’s latest measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 through travel could also snare travellers at airports in this country, Dimanche warns.
Testing of arriving travellers will take place at airports across the country, according to the federal government, but he says many operators are wondering how that will be implemented — and whether it will delay passengers attempting to board connecting flights or reach their destination.
“There is so much uncertainty because we don’t know how this will be processed. We don’t know how long it will take. We don’t know if people will have to be stuck at the airport before they get the result of the test,” Dimanche said.
“All of those are unknowns, and travellers don’t like the unknown.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the rollout of the additional testing would be uneven at first, with certain airports better equipped to handle the new rule.
“Let me be very clear: All travellers should be expected to be tested on arrival. We will not be able to test every targeted traveller overnight. It will take a few days,” Duclos said.
When Mugjenkar travelled with his family last year to South Africa, they ended up trapped in the country for four months after rules had changed. Leaving Canada, they had been cleared for travel.
As the omicron variant makes travel unpredictable once again, he says he’s not eager to repeat what happened last time.
“We’ve got friends that are actually stranded in South Africa at the moment and they can’t fly back into Calgary, and they have no idea when the flights will reopen,” he said.
“We’re OK with the fact that the flights are cancelled, so we’re just hoping they understand the variant better and things will open up again sooner.”
Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News, Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.
Frustration emerges over new COVID-19 related travel rules – Globalnews.ca
About a week after Tope Akindele returned home to Edmonton from Nigeria, the Canadian government introduced a laundry list of new COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“I don’t think it was thought through,” Akindele said.
He arrived back in Canada on November 22 and eight days later, Ottawa announced a strict set of rules for travellers from 10 African countries where the Omicron variant was first identified.
Foreign nationals who have been in these countries in the last 14 days are not allowed into Canada and any Canadians travelling home from these countries will have to be tested at the airport and quarantine while awaiting their results.
COVID-19: Essential, vaccinated workers forced to quarantine amid new travel rules
“Some people were randomly selected to be tested. When we’re coming in — I wasn’t. We were not randomly selected,” Akindele explained.
Akindele was bringing his mother to Canada. When the pair arrived in Calgary before connecting to Edmonton they were told quarantining wasn’t required.
“Upon return, I resumed work. I’ve been working from home — no need to go anywhere,” he said.
But days later he said Health Canada called telling him he needs to quarantine.
“I said ‘no,’ at the time I returned I wasn’t required to quarantine, but all the same, I’ve been home,” he explained.
Health Canada also instructed him to take a COVID test, which needs to be booked through 811.
Akindele says he hasn’t been able to get through. He also doesn’t drive.
Only adding to the stress, he says a security guard showed up at his door to make sure he’s at home and that he had booked a test.
“The guy banged on the door so aggressively. I was like, who does that? Who is this?” Akindele said.
“In my head, I was like, why send (security) when you could have sent someone to come take a swab? Same trip.”
The new rules, particularly around testing, have created a lot of confusion and frustration.
Travel agent Lesley Paull said she’s fielding many questions, but her clients aren’t cancelling their trips.
“A lot of people are tired. They want to go, they’re double vaccinated or triple vaccinated and they’re going,” Paull said.
“It’s more, what is this variant going to do in the future? Is it going to be something or not?”
Paull said ultimately it’s just a matter of getting another PCR test on arrival.
“You’re not paying for that it’s just the inconvenience of getting another test and waiting for the results,” she said.
“It’s still just really mass confusion that’s the biggest problem with it all I think.”
As for Akindele, he believes at this point in the pandemic the system needs to be better.
COVID-19: Confusion, frustration grows over new travel rules
“It’s kind of stressful if you travel during this period of COVID and that’s why I understand when they say don’t travel if it’s not essential,” he said.
Health Canada said it will take a few days before all targeted travellers will be tested, but it’s ramping up capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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