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‘Tremendous pent-up demand’: U.S. border reopens to Canadian land travelers

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A steady stream of Canadian visitors, particularly retirees headed to U.S. sun spots, crossed the U.S. border by car on Monday for the first time in 20 months as Washington lifted travel restrictions.

Traffic was heavy at times at some U.S. border posts such as Bluewater Bridge, Michigan near Sarnia, Ontario, and Champlain, New York, near Quebec. But lines overall appeared to be moving steadily.

The United States imposed a travel ban in early 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, barring access to most non-U.S. citizens traveling from 33 countries – including China, India and much of Europe – and restricting overland entry from Mexico and Canada.

On Monday, packed intercontinental flights touched down, while the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada also saw families reunite.

“This whole half of my life has been missing for almost two years,” said Janet Simoni, who lives in London, Ontario and whose husband lives on the other side of the U.S.-Canada border near Detroit, Michigan.

The two had missed major milestones including a graduation and funeral, she said.

The news of the border’s reopening unleashed “tremendous pent-up demand,” said Marty Firestone, whose travel insurance agency saw business up 25% last month compared to October 2019 – much of it from snowbirds.

Most travelers are required to show proof of vaccination in both directions. Some U.S. states also require a negative COVID-19 test. Canada requires a negative PCR test, which is more time-consuming and costly to get.

The PCR test requirement is deterring some short journeys, such as cross-border day-trippers looking for shopping deals, said Firestone. Canada‘s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said on Friday the testing requirement was “actively being looked at.”

Meanwhile the Canada Border Services Agency is bracing for an influx of returning Canadian land travelers who may be unfamiliar with the rules, said Michael Prosia, an official in the agency’s southern Ontario region.

“There’s dueling obligations at play” between wanting to maintain public health requirements and facilitate border crossings, he said.

According to Statistics Canada, three-quarters of Canadian trips to the United States in 2019 were by car. That year Canadians made 21.5 million car trips across the border that involved less than a day’s stay.

Kristy Kennedy, an official at North Country Chamber of Commerce in northern New York, watched a live video feed of the border crossing at Champlain, New York on Monday morning.

“Having seen it just so bare at the border for 20 months, I was curious. … I wanted to log in and see if that relationship was as strong as it always has been,” she said. “And I think the two-hour wait and the two-mile-long lines of cars spoke volumes.”

The border reopening means a lot for her region, she said – just about every aspect of its economy is positively affected by the reopening. But now, she said, her organization is pushing for Canada‘s PCR test requirement to be lifted.

“We’ve had a few people say, ‘Until that’s lifted, we really can’t come down to Plattsburg,” a city in northern New York.

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Cynthia Osterman)

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Federal government says Canada border testing contracts worth up to $631 million – CTV News

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OTTAWA —
When Halifax-based blogger and social media influencer Kayla Short pulled up to a Canada-U.S. land border last month, she was prepared.

She had all her receipts from her one-week trip to Boston along with her travel documents, proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test from the day before ready to show Canadian officials at the Calais, Maine, crossing.

What Short wasn’t prepared for was to be selected for a mandatory COVID-19 arrival test — less than 24 hours after completing her last test.

The federal government has awarded three companies with contracts worth up to $631 million for COVID-19 border testing and other screening services as concerns about the Omicron variant deepen ahead of the busy holiday travel period.

Public Services and Procurement Canada said Switch Health, LifeLabs and Dynacare are carrying out testing of international travellers entering Canada at airports and land border crossings.

The random arrival testing program is part of broader COVID-19 screening and testing being rolled out by the three companies.

While air travellers selected for additional screening are usually directed to an on-site clinic for a test, travellers crossing land borders are usually handed a test to self-administer.

Short said while the intentions of the program are “good on paper,” she said trying to complete a test during a pit stop at a New Brunswick hotel room with unreliable internet was “cumbersome and overwhelming.”

“The whole thing took me probably two hours from creating an account online and then waiting 45 minutes to speak to someone over a video call with spotty Wi-Fi so they could walk me through the test,” she said. “Then the next day we had to do a detour in Moncton to find a Purolator drop-off box.”

Health Canada said it was working on responding to questions about the COVID-19 arrival testing program sent to the department last week. However, a response was not received before deadline on Monday.

Public Services and Procurement Canada spokesman Gabriel Leboeuf said Switch Health, LifeLabs and Dynacare provide comprehensive border testing services, including appointment booking, test administration and results management.

They also provide further testing support for temporary foreign workers, refugees, asylum seekers and international students, he said

Switch Health is responsible for testing in Ontario, Alberta and Atlantic Canada, with a contract value worth up to $440 million.

LifeLabs is providing testing services in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Yukon with a contract worth up to $111 million, and Dynacare is operating in Quebec and Manitoba with a contract worth up to $80 million.

“As of November 30, 2021, the total approved value of the border testing contracts is approximately $631 million,” Leboeuf said in an email. “However, since companies are paid for services delivered, this amount may not be fully spent.”

Jordan Paquet, vice-president of public affairs with Switch Health, said most of the company’s randomized arrival testing at airports is done on-site.

He said the Canada Border Services Agency will put a sticker on a traveller’s passport or travel document indicating whether they can proceed directly to baggage claim or stop at the testing site first.

At land border crossings, however, Paquet said travellers who are selected for random screening are provided with a test kit to take with them.

“It would get massively backed up if we stopped people to do the tests in person, especially at the bigger land border crossings like the Detroit-Windsor bridge,” he said.

Travellers complete the at-home tests with the help of a Switch Health employee through a video call. They are then directed to put the test in an envelope provided and then in the mail.

“The validity of a test is going to be more guaranteed if someone is proctoring it online,” he said. “It ensures accuracy.”

Paquet said the average wait time to be connected with a Switch Health official online is 15 minutes, making Short’s wait time of 45 minutes longer than usual.

Still, while he acknowledged the inconvenience of being selected for additional testing, he pointed out that self-administering a test from a hotel room is likely preferable for many to standing in line at a testing centre.

Meanwhile, Paquet said the pandemic has shone a light on some of the gaps in the health-care system and has shown that companies like Toronto-based Switch Health can work with governments to improve patient experiences.

“We’re not there to replace anything in the health-care system,” he said. “Our whole goal as a company is to deliver better health care in general for Canadians and more decentralized diagnostics.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021.

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COVID-19 antiviral drug molnupiravir to be manufactured in Canada – CTV News

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TORONTO —
Merck Canada announced on Monday that it is partnering with Thermo Fisher Scientific to manufacture its COVID-19 antiviral drug in Canada for global distribution in a deal Ottawa hopes will help jump-start the country’s position as a biomanufacturing centre and better secure its supply chain for future public health emergencies.

The existing Thermo Fisher facility in Whitby, Ont. will produce doses of molnupiravir, an investigational drug developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, for distribution in Canada, the U.K., the European Union, Asia Pacific, and Latin America, pending approvals in those respective regions. The drug is awaiting approval by Health Canada.

The facility was chosen because of the capacity, capability, and speed with which it is able to produce the drug, Merck Canada’s new president Marwan Akar said during a press conference.

The Whitby location is one of three facilities in the world that will produce this pill, which would be the first drug treatment for COVID-19 patients can take at home.

“We are marking a very key milestone, and rebuilding Canada’s biomanufacturing capability,” Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne said during the news conference.

“We’ll be producing COVID medications for Canadians and indeed for the world… so to me this is a very big step in how we intend to rebuild our biomanufacturing sector in Canada.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Canada came under criticism for its inability to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines domestically, leaving Ottawa reliant on U.S. and European manufacturers to produce and provide doses. To ensure Canadians had access to vaccines as they became available, the federal government ordered hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine candidates from more than half a dozen companies.

Minister Champagne said the latest announcement is part of the government’s efforts to ensure Canada is better prepared and that “we redesign the supply chain so whatever may come next, we would be ready.”

The new manufacturing deal will also help Ontario’s economic recovery with a $19 million capital investment supporting more than 50 high-paying jobs in the region, according to Victor Fedeli, Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade.

ANTIVIRAL LESS EFFECTIVE THAN FIRST THOUGHT

Last week, the federal government signed a deal with Merck to purchase 500,000 molnupiravir pills, with an option for another half million, pending approval. Request for approval of the drug was submitted in August.

The company says its oral pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by about 30 per cent for at-risk, non-hospitalized adult patients with mild or moderate infection. This was sharply lower than the 50 per cent reported in the initial data.

In a narrow vote last week, a panel of expert advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended the drug be authorized for treatment of COVID-19, but expressed concerns over whether it could cause the virus to mutate and its potential to cause birth defects. Studies in rats showed the drug caused toxicity and birth defects at very high doses.

While Merck has yet to conduct specific research on the medication’s effectiveness against the Omicron variant, the company appeared confident that it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other variants. Final authorization for emergency use by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pending.

Antiviral drug treatments are considered another tool in the fight against COVID-19, experts say, after personal protective equipment, testing, and vaccines.

With files from The Associated Press 

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Monday – CBC.ca

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The latest:

Italy is making life more uncomfortable for unvaccinated people as the holidays draw near, excluding them from indoor restaurants, theatres and museums to reduce the spread of coronavirus and encourage vaccine skeptics to get their shots.

Starting Monday through Jan. 15, Italian police can check whether diners in restaurants or bars have a “super” green health pass certifying that they are either vaccinated or have recently recovered from the virus. Smartphone applications that check people’s health pass status will be updated and those who have merely tested negative in recent days for COVID-19 will no longer be allowed into concerts, movies or performances.

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Italy has been on a gradual rise for the past six weeks, even before concerns arose about the new omicron variant. That’s a worrying trend as Italians plan holiday parties and getaways to spend time with friends and family. Christmas travel and holiday gatherings were strictly limited last year due to a steeper rise in contagion.

While both Germany and Austria are moving toward making vaccines obligatory, Italy is instead tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated at the most convivial time of the year — while allowing those who are vaccinated to go about life more or less as usual.

People walk along the Via Condotti luxury shopping street in central Rome on Sunday as the city brought in a regulation requiring people to wear masks outdoors in the city centre and in other busy shopping areas until Dec. 31. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy’s vaccination rate is higher than many of its neighbours, at 85 per cent of the eligible population aged 12 and older and 77 per cent of the total population. But people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have proved the most reluctant to get vaccinated, with nearly 3.5 million still not having received their first doses.

They are also the same age group that is now being hardest hit by the virus, according to Silvio Brusaferro, head of Italy’s National Health Institute.

Also starting Monday, people must have a health pass to access local public transportation and stay in hotels — that can be acquired also with a negative recent test. In Milan, the prefect said health passes will be checked before people are allowed onto the subway or buses.

With the holiday shopping season heating up, many cities including Rome and Milan have ordered mask mandates even outdoors.

Public health officials say vaccinations, along with prudent public behaviour including wearing masks in crowds, are key to reducing infection levels as winter weather pushes more activities indoors. They credit Italy’s relatively high level of immunization as one reason that the infection curve is not as steep as last winter, when broad restrictions were imposed with the spread of the delta variant.

“It is clear that after two years of the pandemic, we cannot easily close schools to physical classes and shut down economic activity,” said Gianni Rezza, the health ministry’s director of prevention.

“Therefore, you can try to keep the virus spread down with measures that are sustainable, and with proper use of the health pass. Then the big bet is on the vaccinations.”

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET


What’s happening across Canada

What’s happening around the world

People who just received a COVID-19 shot wait for their vaccine card to be processed at the Orange Farm, South Africa, multipurpose centre on Friday. South Africa has accelerated its vaccination campaign a week after the discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

As of early Monday morning, more than 265.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to a case-tracking database maintained by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.

In Africa, South Africa is preparing its hospitals for more admissions, as the omicron variant pushes the country into a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday. Ramaphosa said in a weekly newsletter that omicron appeared to be dominating new infections in most provinces and urged more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We will soon be convening a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council to review the state of the pandemic. This will enable us to take whatever further measures are needed to keep people safe and healthy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senegal recorded its first case of the omicron variant in a tourist who attended a demonstration in Dakar last month with about 300 people of varying nationalities, a testing lab said on Sunday.

In the Americas, Argentina has detected its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant in a person who had travelled from South Africa, the South American country’s Health Ministry said late on Sunday. Argentina joined Brazil, Mexico and Chile on the list of Latin American countries where cases of the new variant have been detected.

Students wash their hands before classes at Ricardo P. Cruz elementary school in Taguig city, suburban Manila, on Monday after authorities loosened restrictions to allow limited in-person classes in the capital city. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Asia-Pacific region, some children in the Philippines’ capital Manila returned to school on Monday after a near two-year suspension.

Meanwhile, health officials in Thailand and Nepal reported finding first cases of the omicron variant. In both countries, the cases were detected in foreign nationals, health officials said.

In the Middle East, a Jordanian court sentenced five senior health officials to three years in jail for causing the death of 10 COVID-19 patients following an oxygen outage in a major state hospital, state media said.

In Europe, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his government would present a new package of pandemic restrictions this week in response to the new variant and was considering how to handle the approaching Christmas holidays.

“The situation is indeed not looking good…. We have many deaths,” Morawiecki told a news conference.

-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 9:35 a.m. ET

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