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Fly south or roost? Canadian ‘snowbirds’ weigh Florida mid-pandemic

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MONTREAL, CANADA —
Birds of a feather normally flock together, but the pandemic has divided Canada’s “snowbird” warm weather migrants into two camps: those staying home this winter and those heading to Florida no matter the cost.

Nearly a million Canadians make the annual pilgrimage, fleeing to the southern United States to pass what would otherwise be gray and snowy months with their toes tucked in the sand and ocean breeze in their hair.

The coronavirus has led a majority to forgo the trip this year — but for those flouting Canada’s repeated calls to stay put, the price tag on winter at the beach has skyrocketed.

With the land border between the U.S. and Canada closed for non-essential travel since March, Canada has implored its citizens to stay home.

“Now is not the right time for a vacation abroad,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday, as the country’s second coronavirus wave surges with no sign of slowing.

About 900,000 Canadians spend a large portion of the winter in Florida and in other southern U.S. states, Johanne Blain, director of the Canadian Snowbird Association for the French-speaking province pf Quebec, told AFP.

She estimates that only 30 per cent of that number are doing so this year, however.

That said, rules on the U.S. side are fairly welcoming to sun-starved northerners: The country is allowing in Canadians who fly even for non-essential travel. Canada, on the other hand, is not admitting Americans under the same circumstances.

And while Canadians do not have to respect quarantine rules in Florida, they must do so for 14 days upon return home.

Those who want to make the trip by car or motorhome, meanwhile, simply take advantage of a legal loophole to circumvent the closed land border.

Michael Couturier, CEO of Quebec-based Transport KMC, leads the way.

His clients board a plane in the Montreal suburbs and arrive 12 minutes later in Plattsburgh, New York, where a KMC employee meets them with their vehicle, transported across the border.

The experience does not come cheap: Each plane ticket costs C$500 (around $390) and hauling the vehicle 55 miles (90 kilometers) across the border sets customers back $1,000.

Around 2,000 people have so far used the service, according to Couturier.

‘CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE’

“All we want… is to have peace of mind and be surrounded by joy, not gloom,” a “snowbird” who had recently arrived in Florida with her husband, told AFP.

“We can’t take it anymore, we just want to live our life, we are 60 years old, we decided to live in a motorhome,” she said, requesting that her name not be used.

Whether or not to head south is “a bit of a heartbreaking decision” for those who spend all year in motorhomes, Blain said.

Such snowbirds generally do not have a permanent home and migrate seasonally between Canada and Florida, often for many years, she said.

Snowbirds are also paying top dollar to have companies like KMC transport their vehicle all the way to Florida for an average price of C$1,500-1,800 — but it can cost up to $4,500.

“Thanks to the snowbirds, we had to hire more personnel to meet the demand,” Couturier said. “It’s a very good situation for us right now.”

More than 3.6 million Canadians officially visited Florida last year, or one in 10 people.

Blain said she and her husband will not be among those visiting this winter and did not want to run the risk of catching the coronavirus.

Florida has reported more than twice as many cases as Canada — around 1.2 million — despite having a population that is only a little over half the size.

“When you are sick, you are vulnerable, and on top of that not even in our own country, even if we do have functioning health insurance,” she said.

“We’re better off close to family, because you never know what can happen,” she said.

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In blow to Trudeau, queen’s representative in Canada quits after harassment allegations

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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian Governor General Julie Payette, the representative of the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth, quit on Thursday amid allegations of workplace harassment in an embarrassment for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The resignation has no immediate implications for the Liberal government. The governor general has a largely ceremonial job such as swearing in governments and formally signing legislation, but can on rare occasions be asked to settle constitutional questions.

She resigned just hours after senior officials received the results of an independent probe into reports of verbal abuse and bullying by Payette.

“I have come to the conclusion that a new Governor General should be appointed. Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times,” Payette said in a statement, adding she was sorry for tensions that had arisen with staff.

She was the first governor general to quit under a cloud. Richard Wagner, chief justice of the Supreme Court, will temporarily take over her duties until she is replaced.

Payette, 57, took office in October 2017 for a five-year term on Trudeau’s recommendation. Even after the probe was launched last July, Trudeau defended Payette, saying in September that she was “an excellent governor general.”

She was formerly the country’s chief astronaut and the first Canadian to serve on the International Space Station.

In a brief statement, Trudeau said the resignation meant workplace concerns in the governor general’s office could be addressed. He notably did not thank Payette.

Trudeau is an avowed feminist, and Liberal officials said at the time that the appointment would advance the cause of women. Potential candidates for the job are supposed to be vetted by a special committee, a step Trudeau chose to ignore.

“The colossal failure of Ms. Payette’s term falls squarely on his shoulders,” said Don Davies, a legislator for the opposition New Democrats.

“It’s not a constitutional crisis. … There is a system in place to allow for continuity of the role,” Barbara Messamore, a history professor and constitutional expert at the University of the Fraser Valley, told the CBC.

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

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Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada approves rapid COVID-19 test – CBC.ca

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Ottawa-based company Spartan Bioscience has received Health Canada approval for its made-in-Canada rapid COVID-19 test, authorizing the sale of the device. 

“Spartan’s test is the first truly mobile, rapid PCR test for COVID-19 for the Canadian market,” a news release from the company states. “The Spartan COVID-19 system offers the speed and ease of use of a rapid test, while using the technology of lab-based COVID-19 testing solutions.”

Health Canada originally provided regulatory approval for the company’s device in April 2020 — with the federal government ordering 40,000 tests monthly. At the time, the portable test was being called a “game changer” by health officials because it could deliver on-location results within 60 minutes.

The federal agency restricted the device to research use in May, however, after finding problems with the test that made it unreliable. Approval was granted on Friday after the company conducted clinical trials based on a new device design, Health Canada spokesperson Natalie Mohamed told CBC News in an email.

“The Spartan Bioscience test is a point-of-care molecular test,”  Mohamed wrote. “This new device meets Health Canada’s requirements for safety and effectiveness.”

New swab, upgrades to chemistry kit

Dr. James Spiegelman, a co-founder of the company who also practises internal medicine at Humber River Regional Hospital in Toronto, said the problems stemmed from the efficacy of the swabs used to collect tissue samples, not the machine itself.

Spartan originally used a proprietary cheek swab that it developed for other DNA diagnostics, he said, but it became clear that the swab wasn’t collecting enough genetic material to produce consistent, reliable results.

The company now uses standard nasopharyngeal swabs to collect tissue from the nose.

“We found that that provides the best sample for increased sensitivity of the test,” Spiegelman said.

Spiegelman said the company also made improvements to the sample processing kit so that it no longer needs to be shipped and stored at frozen temperatures but can be stored at room temperature. 

With the Spartan test, a trained health-care professional swabs the nose of the person being tested, places the swab into a processing kit that generates a chain reaction and then puts that kit into the cube-shaped device, which takes about 50 minutes to analyze and produce results. 

Spiegelman said the test could be used to provide quick and accurate COVID-19 diagnostics everywhere from hospitals and workplaces to pharmacies and remote communities. 

“I think [Spartan’s rapid test] will really help alleviate and give us a tool in our toolbox to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Rapid tests already in use across Canada 

Rapid diagnostic tests are already in use in many settings across Canada to test for COVID-19, including in homeless shelters, long-term care homes and remote communities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that the federal government had distributed more than 14 million to the provinces and territories. 

“The Spartan system will be able to provide quality results to remote communities, industries and settings with limited lab access, helping relieve the burden on overwhelmed health-care facilities,” the company’s news release states. 

The company said production of the rapid tests is already underway and that shipments will begin immediately to federal, provincial and commercial customers 

CBC News has contacted Health Canada but did not hear back immediately.  

In an emailed statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Health said it welcomes the authorization of additional rapid tests.  

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Canada working with the U.S. to close travel 'loophole' – CTV News

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Canadian officials said Friday they are working with the Biden administration to close what they describe as a travel “loophole” and to get more symmetry with COVID-19 safety protocols between the two countries.

“A loophole, frankly, does exist because the Americans previously had not placed any restriction on international flights coming into the U.S.,” said Bill Blair, Canada’s public safety minister, during a news conference Friday.

“That concerns us because that restriction is at our land border but not at air travel,” he added.

While the Canada-U.S. border remains closed and all nonessential travel is prohibited until at least February 21, in the 10 months since the border restrictions were put in place, hundreds of thousands of travelers have made discretionary trips between both countries as air travel has not so far been subject to the same restrictions.

With the United States not imposing any air travel restrictions from Canada, the loophole has allowed everything from Canadian snowbirds going to the warm climes of Florida and Arizona for winter to family members on both sides of the border setting up nonessential visits.

TRUDEAU TO CANADIANS: AVOID TRAVEL

On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau underscored his plea to Canadians to stay home and avoid travel of any kind, including domestic and international travel.

Trudeau has acknowledged that constitutionally he cannot prevent Canadians from traveling, but he did warn that it might soon become much more difficult to return to Canada.

“We could be bringing in new measures that significantly impede your ability to return to Canada, at any given moment, without warning,” Trudeau said during a news conference Friday, adding, “The bottom line is this: This is not the time to travel either internationally or across the country.”

International air travelers who currently enter Canada must show proof of a negative test result for COVID-19 taken within 72 hours of departure and are also subject to a 14-day mandatory quarantine with violators facing stiff financial penalties. There are exceptions for essential workers.

LOOKING FOR MORE MEASURES

Canadian officials say they are looking for more measures that would discourage as much travel as possible, and they are hoping a new agreement with the United States will help.

“We are looking at a number of measures that can include further restrictions on international travel, additional tracing measures, additional quarantine measures and enforcement measures in order to de-incentivize and discourage people from making unnecessary trips,” Blair said Friday.

Officials also indicated that weeks of lockdowns throughout most of Canada are slowly starting to work with new daily cases of COVID-19 falling.

“This gives us hope that community based control measures are starting to take effect,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. “But it is still too soon to be sure that these measures are strong enough and broad enough to set us on a steady downward trend.”

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