Shut down travel in and out of Manitoba or risk prolonging pandemic, experts warn

With Manitoba health officials seeing more cases of the illness linked to non-essential travel, experts say more needs to be done to discourage it, or risk prolonging the pandemic. 

Health officials say first P1 variant case has been linked to non-essential travel

Last week, deputy chief public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Manitoba's first P1 variant case was linked to non-essential travel. (motive56/Shutterstock)

With Manitoba health officials seeing more cases of the illness linked to non-essential travel, experts say more needs to be done to discourage it or risk prolonging the pandemic. 

Data shows air travel among Manitobans is still much lower than it was pre-pandemic, with only a few hundred passengers flying in and out of Winnipeg's airport each day, according to a spokesperson with the Winnipeg Airports Authority. 

Statistics Canada data shows that the number of Manitobans returning to the province from abroad rose slightly in the second half of 2020, to 4,366 in September and 5,099 in December, from 3,389 in April 2020.

In February 2021, that number dipped again to 3,634. 

However, last week Manitoba's deputy chief public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said public health officials are seeing many COVID-19 cases linked to non-essential travel. 

That includes Manitoba's first case of the highly contagious P1 variant. 

"People are travelling to gather with friends and families, then they come home with the nasty souvenir from their travels," Atwal said. 

In one such case, an individual became infected with the B117 variant of concern, which led to a cluster of cases, he said. 

At least one person is in the intensive care unit as a result, while several others are self-isolating, he said. 

While it may be too late to keep the B117 variant of concern out of Manitoba, it is really important to keep other variants from spreading in Manitoba for as long as possible, says Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table. 

Dr. Peter Juni, director of Ontario’s COVID scientific advisory table, says travel needs to be strongly discouraged to keep more infectious variants of concern from spreading farther in Canada. (CBC)

He says the same principles that applied at the beginning of the pandemic, when travel restrictions first came into effect to slow the spread of the virus, should apply now to keep variants out.

So it's not just about banning a few flights and then you put your feet up on your desk and then you think you've done your job.- Kelley Lee, Canada Research chair in global health governance

"We should remember that the reason we're in this global pandemic is because at the beginning there were not stringent travel restrictions in place," Atwal said.  "So the same principles that held at the beginning still hold now, in a way."

Current measures not enough 

Currently, anyone entering Manitoba is required to self-isolate for two weeks. 

Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly insisted that the province has some of the toughest travel restrictions in the country. 

"We have stringent requirements and regulations we brought in. We've strengthened them. We're open to doing more if need be. And we're continually monitoring the situation with the guidance of our public health officials," Pallister said at a news conference on Thursday as the province marked an eight-day streak of triple-digit case increases. 

It's comments like that that make Kelley Lee cringe. 

Lee, who's the Canada Research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has been studying the effectiveness of travel restrictions at containing COVID-19 as part of an international research team studying the topic. 

Kelley Lee, a professor of public health at Simon Fraser University who holds a Canada Research chair in global health governance, has been studying how effective travel restrictions have been at reducing the spread of COVID-19. (Simon Fraser University)

She says countries that have put travel restrictions in place quickly and coupled with testing have been the most successful at reducing the importation of the virus into their jurisdictions.

"So it's not just about banning a few flights and then you put your feet up on your desk and then you think you've done your job," Lee said. 

Though she applauded Manitoba for putting quarantine requirements in place to try to keep variants of concern out, she says provinces need to be doing more to discourage non-essential travel. 

It's difficult to legislate against, she says, but could involve measures such as requiring people to self-isolate at a hotel that they have to pay for, or to be tested as soon as they come back.

"I think that might be the way forward, and not many provinces have done that," she said. "They've just kept saying, you know, 'Please don't.'"

If more infectious variants continue to be imported through travel, it will undermine Canada's immunization progress, and prolong the pandemic, she said. 

"So that's a horrible scenario to think about when we're racing to get people vaccinated with the vaccines that we have," she said. 

"We just can't afford to have that undermined by the variants that are coming in that are highly transmissible."

However, Souradet Shaw, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, says he thinks it's too late to keep variants out, and that the province's focus should be on limiting close contacts and gatherings.

"I think it was inevitable that the variants would be coming here, and I think we just need to focus on strategies to stop the transmission within the province," he said. 

Shaw says the time for lockdown measures is now, or Manitoba risks landing in a similar situation as Ontario or other provinces seeing skyrocketing hospitalizations. 

"I think ping-ponging between sort of half measures to try and stop a pandemic … is worse off in the long run, economically, societally," he said. 

"I think you can't fine tune your way out of the pandemic and we need to come up with public health measures that are fast and hard and to do it proactively instead of until we see it."