U.S. vaccination requirement for air passengers worries Canadians with mixed vaccines
U.S. currently doesn't recognize people with some COVID-19 vaccine mixes as being fully vaccinated
Canadian travellers have been able to fly freely to the United States since the start of the pandemic, but new U.S. travel rules announced Monday have some Canadians with two different COVID-19 vaccine doses worried they may soon be barred from entry.
Starting in early November, the U.S. will require foreign air passengers entering the country to be fully vaccinated. The problem is, the U.S. has yet to approve mixing COVID-19 vaccines.
"I'm really worried about this U.S. policy," said Cathy Hiuser of Ancaster, Ont., who has one dose of COVISHIELD (a brand of AstraZeneca) and one dose of Pfizer. She has booked a trip to Maui, departing Nov. 7.
"I don't even know if I'll be able to go across the border," she said. "It's a problem."
At the same time as the U.S. introduces its vaccine requirement, the country will lift its travel ban on air passengers entering from a list of dozens of red-flagged countries.
"We'll be putting in place strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from passengers flying internationally into the United States," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday.
CBC News asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) if the millions of Canadians with mixed vaccines will still be allowed to fly to the country when the vaccine requirement kicks in. The CDC said it's in the "regulatory process" phase in determining which vaccines will be accepted.
The agency also laid out its current policy: it considers people fully vaccinated when they have all recommended doses of the same COVID-19 vaccine, such as Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.
"At present CDC does not recognize mixed vaccines," said spokesperson Kristen Nordlund.
But there are exceptions to the rule. The CDC says on its website that mixed doses of the two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, are acceptable in "exceptional situations," such as when the vaccine used for the first dose was no longer available.
However, a combination of AstraZeneca and an mRNA vaccine won't meet the bar, a position adopted by cruise ships departing from U.S. ports.
"Guests whose two-shot regimen consists of 1 mRNA dose (Pfizer or Moderna) with 1 AstraZeneca dose will not be considered vaccinated," states Royal Caribbean cruise line on its website. "We continue to encourage the CDC and other U.S. government officials to re-evaluate this policy."
'I started to cry'
Canada is one of several countries — including Germany, Italy, France and Thailand — that has doled out mixed vaccines to a number of its citizens. But there is no international consensus on the practice.
The CDC said the U.S. is conducting trials on the safety and effectiveness of mixed vaccines, and that the agency may update its vaccine recommendations once it has new data.
But that's of little comfort to Canadians with mixed doses who've already made travel plans to the U.S., such as snowbirds and those who've booked winter vacations.
In May, Norma Chrobak of Orillia, Ont., booked a special family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands to celebrate her partner's 75th birthday. The trip consists of a week-long chartered boat cruise in February — at a cost of $26,000.
The problem is, five out of the 10 family members set to go on the trip — including Chrobak and her partner — have a mix of AstraZeneca and Moderna.
"My heart just almost exploded in my chest," said Chrobak when she learned about the coming U.S. vaccine requirement for travellers. "I started to cry."
She has already paid a $12,500 deposit and, even though she purchased travel insurance, Chrobak is unsure at this point if she can get a full refund if she must cancel the trip.
The cruise was supposed to be a surprise birthday gift for Chrobak's partner. But she's speaking publicly about it in the hopes the Canadian government will pressure the U.S. to accept mixed vaccines.
"Somebody's got to take this bull by the horns," she said. "There's got to be something that can be done."
Canada updated its vaccination guidelines in June to recommend mixing COVID-19 vaccine doses based on emerging research that found it was both safe and effective.
On Thursday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada is in talks with the U.S. about its coming vaccine requirement for foreign air passengers.
"We have had quite a series of discussions with U.S. counterparts," she said during a news conference. "We've basically been providing some technical support to help them make a decision on the mixed dose, particularly AstraZeneca followed by an mRNA vaccine."
The waiting game
Lawyer Henry Chang, who specializes in Canadian and U.S. immigration law, said he's optimistic the U.S. will soon change its position on mixed vaccines.
"My gut feeling is that they're going to have to resolve it. If not right when the vaccine requirements come in, soon after, because there are going to be too many people complaining about this," said Chang, who is with the law firm Dentons in Toronto.
If the U.S. doesn't budge on mixed vaccines come November, some Canadians will still have options. Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are each offering third vaccine doses to people in their province who require it for travel.
But that doesn't help potential travellers such as Chrobak in Ontario, who must wait to find out the fate of her trip.
"Pretty much just feeling devastated, feeling like I have no control," she said.