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How some Canadian travellers are getting free COVID-19 tests in the U.S. to return home – CBC.ca

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When Ian Hutcheon inquired about getting a COVID-19 test last month at a Walgreens pharmacy in Gold Canyon, Ariz., before his flight home to Calgary, he got a pleasant surprise.

“I happened to ask to speak to the pharmacist, who said, ‘Oh, we can test you for free,'” said Hutcheon. “I was a little incredulous, but he insisted.”

Travellers entering Canada must provide proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their entry. And those molecular tests — such as the popular PCR test — can cost hundreds of dollars.

As a result, Canada’s testing requirement has sparked protests from politicians and tourism groups on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, who complain the tests can be cost-prohibitive.

But CBC News interviewed six Canadians who recently travelled to the U.S., and got a free molecular test at a pharmacy or a clinic before their return to Canada. 

“It’s mind-blowing to think that people are paying $200 for those tests,” said Andrew D’Amours, who is the co-founder of the travel information website, Flytrippers. 

D’Amours, of Trois-Rivières, Que., has taken three free tests in the U.S. and written about the topic for his site. 

“It’s so easy to get it for free,” he said. 

Ian Hutcheon and Colleen McMechan, of Calgary, each got free COVID-19 tests at a Walgreens location in Arizona last month before returning to Canada. (Submitted by Ian Hutcheon)

However, there are caveats: Travellers may not be guaranteed to get their test results in time, and may not find free tests at their U.S. destination.

But the stars aligned for Hutcheon and his wife, Colleen McMechan. At Walgreens, they each took a self-administered free Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) test, which is listed as an accepted test by the Canadian government. 

The couple had booked their tests online one day in advance, listing their hotel when asked to provide an address. Hutcheon said they faced no issues when they drove their rental car to Walgreens the following day to take the test at the pharmacy’s drive-thru testing site.

“They took the swab and about two hours later, the results appeared in my email inbox,” he said. “We printed them and took them with us to the airport and it was all smooth sailing.”

Why are the tests free?

The tests that Hutcheon and other Canadian travellers have received aren’t actually free, but instead funded by the U.S. government. It has put measures in place to make low or no-cost COVID-19 tests available to everyone in the U.S., including those who don’t have U.S. medical insurance. 

“They want people to get tested,” said Jeremy Gelbart, co-founder of BeeperMD, a COVID-19 testing company that comes to people’s homes — or hotel rooms — to provide free PCR tests. (Individuals who book a same-day test for one person, however, must pay a booking fee.) 

WATCH | U.S. land border reopens: 

Long lines greet eager travellers at the border

The border between Canada and the U.S. reopened today and some Albertans are eager to travel, even if that means waiting two to three hours at the Coutts-Sweet Grass crossing. 1:15

BeeperMD services customers in New York City and most regions in Florida. The company has already provided free tests to thousands of Canadian travellers, including snowbirds, Gelbart said.

BeeperMD typically provides test results within 36 hours and will do everything it can to ensure travellers get their results within Canada’s required 72-hour window, he said. But he cautions there are no guarantees for non-paying customers.

As a precaution, Gelbart advises travellers to book their free tests a couple of days in advance. 

“If people are prepared, they’ll be fine,” he said. “We try to be as accommodating as possible.”

Quick NAAT tests

Four of the Canadians interviewed used a Walgreens drive-thru site to take a free, self-administered NAAT test, which the pharmacy chain calls an ID NOW test. Each traveller said they pre-booked their test online at least one day in advance and got their results within three hours of testing. 

D’Amours has twice taken a NAAT test at Walgreens: once in May in Newark, N.J., and the second time on Sunday in Baton Rouge, La. He said the NAAT tests are the best option for Canadians, because they provide quick results.

“I would say it’s a game changer.”

Several Canadians told CBC News they got free, self-administered COVID-19 tests via a Walgreens drive-thru location. (Submitted by Andrew D’Amours)

Walgreens did not respond to requests for comment. However, the pharmacy chain’s website states that it offers no-cost COVID-19 testing at select locations. 

It also says that PCR test results are typically provided within 48 hours, but without a guarantee. However, its NAAT test is performed on-site, and results are available within 24 hours.

Walgreens also states that customers need to provide a valid state ID or driver’s licence and insurance card.

None of the people interviewed by CBC said they were denied for having a Canadian driver’s licence and no U.S.-based medical insurance.

“We just [showed] our Canadian driver’s licence IDs and that worked perfectly fine,” said Haris Naeem Nini, of Milton, Ont. He and his wife, Mariam Haris, each got free NAAT tests at a Walgreens drive-thru in the Buffalo area in May.

Haris Naeem and Mariam Haris Nini, of Milton, Ont., each got free NAAT tests at a Walgreens in the Buffalo area in May, just before returning to Canada. (Submitted by Haris Naeem Nini )

Walgreens states that customers can only get tested by car via a drive-thru. Nini said the couple didn’t have a vehicle, so they went through the drive-thru in an Uber. 

“The experience was a breeze and obviously didn’t cost us anything — except for the Uber ride.”

In September, Delores Davidson also received a free test, but she went to a CVS pharmacy drive-thru in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and got a PCR test. She said she had to pre-book her appointment online and it took about 24 hours to get the results. 

“It was quick and easy,” said Davidson, who lives in Calgary. “We never paid. We were never charged.”

CVS also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Free test warnings

D’Amours warns that the NAAT/ID NOW tests aren’t available at all Walgreen locations, so Canadians should check online before making U.S. travel plans. Travellers may also need to book their free test several days in advance to secure an appointment, he said. 

D’Amours further advises travellers to stay informed during their travels — in case the U.S. suddenly changes its no-cost test policy. “You never know, with the U.S. [land] border reopening, will they get too many Canadians and decide to scrap it?”

Another traveller also has a warning. 

Petar Sesar, of London, Ont., said he and his fiancée, Mara Bakula, tried to get a free PCR test at a CVS in Cleveland in August, but were told it would take at least four days to get their results.

“I said, ‘How long will it take, because we plan on leaving for Canada tomorrow,'” said Sesar. “They kind of laughed at us when we suggested that we would be using the test results to travel.”

The couple wound up paying $200 US each at a clinic to get PCR tests with guaranteed quick results.

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Would national vaccine mandates work in Canada? Experts aren't sure – CBC.ca

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With European states turning to mandatory national vaccination regimes to deal with record COVID-19 infections, experts in Canada say that while science and the law may back the Liberal government if it chose to follow suit, it might not be the panacea the public is hoping for.

There are significant challenges to imposing a national mandatory vaccination program for all Canadians, the first of which is the age-old jurisdictional battle between the federal government and the provinces.

Under the Constitution, the provinces are responsible for delivering health care, and a vaccine mandate would fall under that remit. If the federal government wanted to take over that responsibility, it would have to either use the Emergencies Act or pass legislation giving it the authority to act.

“To do that, all hell would break loose from the provinces,” Michael Behiels, a constitutional law expert at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News. “It’s theoretically possible, but this would go to court immediately, and they would have to prove that the crisis is in fact a national crisis.”

Behiels said a federal government taking this route would likely win any challenge in court, providing it could prove that the rate of infections, the death rate and ongoing mutations were creating a threat only a national response could mitigate.

Even in victory, he said, the move would likely create a backlash among provincial governments that see the step as unnecessary at this stage of the pandemic.

“Up until this moment in Canada, there has not really been a need to consider it,” Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told CBC News.

“We’re not back to normal, but we’re getting there — and there’s no guarantee that we’ll be right back to normal even if everybody is vaccinated because there are breakthrough infections,” said McGeer, who is also a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. 

Context is everything

Behiels said a national vaccine mandate could not only create bad blood between the unvaccinated and the federal government but also between the provinces and Ottawa that could undermine the vaccination effort.

If the situation were different, he said, with a much higher death rate or a more aggressive infection rate, making that move might be easy and the provinces might even ask for the intervention if the situation got bad enough. But experts are not sure Canada has reached that point just yet.

European countries such as Austria and Greece appear to believe they have, and they’re moving in the direction of national vaccine mandates because they are seeing infection rates three times higher than at any other time during the pandemic, and vaccination programs have stalled.

Protesters against COVID-19 measures in Vienna on Nov. 20. European countries such as Austria and Greece are moving in the direction of national vaccine mandates because they are seeing infection rates three times higher than at any other time during the pandemic, and vaccination programs have stalled. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

In January, Greeks over the age of 60 who are not yet vaccinated will be subject to a monthly fine of 100 euros ($140 Cdn). Slovakia is looking at taking the opposite route and offering 600 euros ($844) to encourage people to get their shots.

Austria, with one of the lower vaccination rates in the European Union, is looking at plans that, if implemented, would fine unvaccinated Austrians more than 7,000 euros ($9,880). There are already signs that enforcing that mandate will be a challenge; late last month some 40,000 protesters turned up in Vienna to challenge the new rules.

Only 67 per cent of the EU’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Our World in Data, while in Canada, 76 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Greece sits at 64 per cent, while Austria’s population is only 66 per cent fully vaccinated.

Germany isn’t much better at 68 per cent, and countries such as Hungary have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe at just 61 per cent.

Both Germany and Hungary are experiencing record infection rates, and both are turning to strict national policies to try to turn the tide. For now, Germany is only talking about mandatory vaccination. Hungary, however, is allowing companies to impose the policy on employees and compel any unvaccinated staff to take unpaid leave until they get immunized.

In Canada, by comparison, all passengers travelling on planes and trains must be fully vaccinated, as must the staff working in those sectors. All federal employees must also be fully vaccinated.

Reasons for hesitancy

McGeer and other infectious disease physicians, such as Dr. Isaac Bogoch of the University of Toronto and Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., all agree that the goal some European states are pursuing — a fully vaccinated population — is a worthy one.

But they also agree that imposing mandatory vaccination regimes across the population might cause an uproar, stress the goodwill between Canadians and their government and, in the end, not deliver the desired results.

“Say it works and you actually get huge numbers of people now being vaccinated because of the imposition of fines or restrictions. The fact of the matter is that it would help, it would have an impact,” Evans said.

“If we had 95 to almost 100 per cent of the population vaccinated, this virus would have one devil of a time trying to maintain itself in the environment.”

Health-care workers who oppose mandatory vaccinations and the suspension from work for those who refuse to get the shots chant slogans during a protest outside the Greek parliament in Athens in November. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

Bogoch agreed with the sentiment that more vaccinations are necessary, but he remains unsure that a mandatory vaccine regime would have the desired effect.

“There are multiple reasons why people remain unvaccinated, and understanding those reasons and tailoring your response to those reasons is usually a more effective approach so you don’t further alienate people in an already polarized world,” he said.

Bogoch says there are typically four types of unvaccinated Canadians. The first two are people who intend to get vaccinated but have not gotten around to it yet and people who work multiple jobs or are single parents and have not had the time or opportunity to get vaccinated. Bogoch says these groups likely wouldn’t be put off by a vaccine mandate.

But the other two — people with lingering concerns and anxieties and people who have been influenced by misinformation campaigns — might be pushed further away from vaccination by a mandate, he says.  

One size does not fit all

Within those groups, experts say, there are subgroups turned off of vaccination for different reasons.

“People who are white, rich, highly educated and born in Canada have much more faith in the public health system and have much more willingness to believe their government, so we get higher vaccination rates,” McGeer said.

“Racialized communities who already are at strikingly higher risk of being infected with COVID are the very people who have more trouble in deciding to get vaccinated and with good reason.”

She added, “Vaccine mandates are systemically inequitable, and you can work to mitigate it, but you can’t fix it.”

Bogoch says the best way to increase vaccination rates is to understand why each group won’t get vaccinated and then try to meet them on their ground: If they can’t get to a vaccination clinic because they are too busy, use mobile clinics, he says. If they still have lingering questions, sit them down with health professionals and try to answer their questions. If they have been influenced by misinformation, try to combat those false narratives. But don’t, Bogoch says, try to motivate everyone with the same approach.

“There is not a one-size fits all solution to this problem,” he said.

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Hoping Omicron won’t wreck Christmas, Bethlehem lights up tree

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Residents lit up a giant Christmas tree outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Saturday, hoping that a new coronavirus variant doesn’t ruin another holiday season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was all but closed last Christmas, losing its peak tourist season to the pandemic.

This December has seen Israel shut out foreign travellers for 14 days to try to prevent the Omicron variant taking hold, and the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel. In its last pre-pandemic winter, in 2019/20, Bethlehem hosted 3.5 million visitors.

The giant tree, topped with a bright red star, was lit up with hundreds of coloured lights as red, white and green fireworks illuminated the night sky.

Mayor Anton Salman said the travel ban had prevented several foreign delegations attending.

Nonetheless, the audience in Manger Square in front of the church was far bigger than last year, when coronavirus restrictions kept even local spectators away.

“It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation,” said Maria, a tourist from Finland who did not provide her full name.

 

(Reporting by Mohammed Abu Ganeyeh and Yosri al-Jamal in Bethlehem and Roleen Tafakji in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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Stuck in South Africa, new travel rules put this Canadian's trip home for the holidays at risk – CBC.ca

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Andrew Neumann’s hopes of making it home for the holidays have been cast into doubt by the emergence of the omicron coronavirus variant and the swift implementation of new pandemic border restrictions around the world.

“It’s actually a particularly sensitive time,” Neumann, a Canadian living in South Africa, said in an interview on CBC’s The House that aired Saturday. His son just started university in Toronto, his first year away from home, he explained. And there are other pressing concerns.

“My wife’s father is very ill. He’s in his 80s. He’s undergoing chemotherapy…. Likewise, my mother’s 91. She’s in sort of cognitive decline. I haven’t seen her in two years,” he told host Chris Hall.

“And there’s a question mark again in my mind: Am I going to be able to say goodbye?” Neumann said.

20:23Borders tighten again

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino discusses new restrictions and testing measures at the border and Peel Region medical officer of health Dr. Lawrence Loh explains how his jurisdiction is dealing with concerns about omicron. 20:23

Neumann has lived in Johannesburg since 2015. He was planning to return to Canada for the holidays when new travel restrictions were put in place affecting travellers from 10 countries, mostly in southern Africa. Canadians trying to come home from those countries must now meet a series of additional testing and quarantine requirements.

Travellers must get a pre-departure molecular COVID-19 test 72 hours ahead of their departure, something Canadians are now used to, but that test must be in a third country — not any of the 10 on Canada’s list. Neumann was planning to get a test during his connection in Germany, but additional rules put in place there have made that impossible.

Canadian, German restrictions clash

A letter Neumann received from the Canadian High Commission in South Africa said German airline Lufthansa would not allow Canadians to board because of that third-country testing requirement and restrictions put in place by Germany.

Neumann’s situation closely resembles that of the Canadian junior women’s field hockey team, which has also been stuck in South Africa. The team has asked for an exemption to leave the country.

Andrew Neumann and his family have been trying to come back to Canada from South Africa. (Submitted)

Neumann said he has been struck by what he says is the “cavalier” way the government has answered the questions of would-be travellers whose plans the restrictions have thrown into limbo.

He also says the restrictions themselves make little sense given what we now know about the spread of the omicron variant.

“It just seems so disproportionate a response to southern Africa versus the rest of the world that you have to question the motivations,” he said.

In an emailed response to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said this country’s entry requirements are meant to ensure the safety of Canadians. It said that the implementation of restrictions could disrupt travel plans but that “the decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the individual.”

“We can confirm that we are receiving reports of Canadians abroad affected by these new measures,” the statement said.

Debate over travel ban effectiveness

In a separate interview on The House, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the restrictions are being implemented to give Canada the time to assess the risk of the omicron variant and “protect the progress” the country has made against the pandemic.

“I’d acknowledge that we’re at a moment where there will be some challenges, but we put in place public health measures because of the variant of concern.”

WATCH | New travel restrictions throw travel plans into chaos: 

Omicron variant renews uncertainty for travellers

3 days ago

The uncertainty around the omicron variant and new COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements has some wondering if international travel is about to be upended again. 2:04

There has been significant criticism of the travel measures put in place by Canada and other countries, with growing evidence that the new variant had been circulating in several nations before South African researchers first discovered it in late November and travel restrictions were imposed.

Part of the debate has centred on the efficacy of travel restrictions themselves, with some experts arguing they do little to stop the spread of a new variant. The president of South Africa called them “unscientific” and “discriminatory.”

Mendicino said the restrictions on the 10 countries were not politically motivated but instead based on science.

“We’re doing it because we want to protect Canadians. This is not their first go-around. We’ve done this drill before, and we want to make sure that we’re taking the right decision when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Canadians,” he said.

WATCH | Debate over the effectiveness of travel restrictions: 

Travel bans unfairly target country that identified omicron variant, specialist says

3 days ago

Dr. Samir Gupta, a respirologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, says travel bans to prevent the omicron variant’s spread can buy time, but penalize the countries that identify new virus variants. 7:52

For one medical officer of health in Canada, the bans are of some use but should not be the focus of government.

“You know, the honest truth is that it probably would have limited impact overall, but it may help to slow the introduction of omicron,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh of Peel Region, which hosts Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

For Neumann, it’s clear the travel bans are not justified.

“When we know now that it’s also everywhere else in the world suggests that poorer countries are at a disadvantage, certainly versus Europe and Canada and the U.S.,” he said.

Despite the challenges so far, Neumann now has a flight booked for next Friday and describes himself as “somewhat hopeful” his travel plans will work out.

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