Kids at risk as Canada-U.S. border rules set to ease amid Delta surge: experts

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Starting Monday, fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents who want to come to Canada for non-essential reasons can do so. But with the Delta variant surging in the U.S., and with Canada on the cusp of a fourth wave driven by the variant, experts say children under 12 are particularly vulnerable.

“People have to be really careful about this because Delta is kind of changing the way risk presents itself,” said Dr. Omar Khan, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

“The timing is also tricky too because we’re looking for a September opening date for schools, and with extra travel, these things may not mix well.”

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No vaccine has been approved for children under 12, but several clinical trials are underway. These are happening as the Delta variant continues its dominance worldwide.

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In the U.S., 15,896 new cases were reported on Monday. In Canada, 907 cases were reported on Tuesday, with Delta accounting for the majority of the recently reported cases.

While COVID-19 vaccines still provide strong protection against the variant, experts say relaxed travel rules between the U.S. and Canada — starting Aug. 9 — may add additional risk to the unvaccinated.

“If you have a family with young kids, and kids from different families who are unvaccinated who will be playing with each other, just be aware of that risk that they’re unvaccinated and they can transmit between each other and older people too,” Khan said.

“They might not get as sick, because a lot of kids are asymptomatic, but they can transmit.”

On Monday, American travellers who are fully vaccinated won’t have to quarantine upon arrival in Canada, and the government-approved hotel quarantine program will also be axed.

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They will, however, be subject to COVID-19 testing and will be required to provide proof of vaccination by way of the ArriveCAN smartphone app or web portal. Post-travel test results will no longer be necessary.

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Fully vaccinated travellers from other places in the world will be allowed to enter as of Sept. 7.

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Dr. Nitin Mohan, an assistant professor in the global health systems program at Western University, said while children under 12 are at risk, so are other unvaccinated Canadians.

While there is a risk from travellers coming from the U.S., there is also a risk with domestic travel in Canada, Mohan added, citing Alberta, which is planning to end isolation requirements for those who test positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts.

“I think this is where it gets a little scary because children under 12 don’t have the option of getting vaccinated at this moment,” he said. “Even when we move to that five to 11 (age range) vaccination schedule, you still have the zero to five range left exposed.”

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Both Khan and Mohan agree that Canada’s vaccination requirements for American travellers can help manage the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

“There is risk from people travelling within the country of transmitting the virus to other folks, so if you’re unvaccinated … you’re at risk of getting COVID and getting a highly transmissible strain in the Delta variant,” Mohan said.

“I think if the correct protocols are put in place at the borders — which I have confidence they are — and we are accepting fully vaccinated folks… I don’t know if that’s an (overall) increased risk compared to domestic travel.”

It is unclear how many Americans are expected to enter the country come Aug. 9, but Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor Jim Diodati doesn’t expect it to be overwhelming.

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That’s because of the requirements needed to cross the border – and the fact that the summer tourism season is almost done, he said.

“The people who are going to come I think are people who have family here and people who have property here,” he said. “It’s going to be more of that than leisurely travellers.”

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But Canada shouldn’t rush into easing its border restrictions further as Niagara’s tourism sector can’t afford to be shut down again, Diodati added.

“Let’s do this and see how it plays out,” he said. “The next step I anticipate is (President Joe) Biden opening up their borders to Canadian travellers at land crossings.… Once he does that, then we can re-evaluate and see where things are at.”

U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21. Washington isn’t lifting any existing travel restrictions currently due to concerns over the Delta variant, Reuters has reported.

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The CDC recently cited the Delta’s surge for its updated advice that fully vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas with high transmission.

While U.S. officials say most of the cases are among the unvaccinated, recent studies show the virus has infected those who are fully vaccinated — described as breakthrough cases.

The Delta variant, in particular, is considered highly transmissible. A recent CDC report suggested the variant could be as contagious as chickenpox.

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“It is very clear now that (vaccinated people) can transmit the infection to others,” America’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Global News in an exclusive interview.

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At the end of the day, Canadians must continue to get vaccinated in order to protect children who can’t receive the jab yet, Mohan said.

“Anything short of that, you’re accepting a risk that I think is far higher than anyone should be wanting to tolerate,” he said.

“I think with kids under 12, almost our entire focus and energy should be spent at this group right now.”

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