Nfld. & Labrador

MD testifies about COVID-19 transmission risks of lifting N.L. travel ban

The province's infection rate could be 20 times higher in the absence of a travel ban, the doctor leading a team running models on the contagion said Thursday in court.

Dr. Proton Rahman says the infection rate could be 20 times higher in the absence of a travel ban

Dr. Proton Rahman prepares to testify at a Supreme Court hearing challenging Newfoundland and Labrador's COVID-19-related travel ban. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador's COVID-19 infection rate could be 20 times higher in the absence of a travel ban, the doctor leading a team running models on the contagion said Thursday in court.

Dr. Proton Rahman testified before the province's Supreme Court during a legal challenge to the travel ban that authorities imposed in May to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, is also set to take the stand as a witness in the proceedings scheduled to last the week in St. John's. She ordered special measures this spring that banned anyone but permanent residents and workers deemed essential from entering the province.

In May, Halifax resident Kim Taylor and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a claim alleging the restrictions fall outside the province's jurisdiction and violate the charter.

Taylor was initially denied a request to travel to Newfoundland after her mother died. That decision was later reversed and she was granted an exemption, but she says it came too late.

Rahman, a clinical epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Memorial University, testified Thursday about with his work with the modelling group.

Scenarios show increases without travel ban

His team helps the province and other institutions with predictive analysis on issues such as potential surges of COVID-19 cases. Rahman said his team was asked by the province to run modelling scenarios in June for the court case.

The results, he said, showed a "10-fold higher rate of cases in the province" over a nine-week period without a travel restriction in place. A second scenario showed a case rate that was five-to-20-fold higher over 14 weeks without a travel restriction, he said.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald was supposed to testify on Thursday, but proceedings ended early. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Rahman also told the court about a paper he co-authored with Stanford University and Oxford University professors analyzing the impact of lifting the travel ban in the province.

The paper, dated July 17, is not yet peer-reviewed. Researchers used machine learning and an epidemiological model to look at COVID-19 dynamics in various reopening scenarios. Rahman said the results suggest that a full border reopening would see a new COVID-19 case in the province "every other day."

The authors wrote that while relaxing travel restrictions is "a highly contentious political decision," tight border measures are a clearly effective strategy to control cases.

"From an outbreak dynamics perspective, the picture is quite clear: Without proper control, an influx of infected travellers can easily become the seed for a new exponential outbreak," the study read. "Our study shows that especially for smaller provinces or states … tight border control is often easier and more effective than quarantine."

The authors also noted "local travel bubbles" are a reasonable first step when relaxing travel restrictions. Newfoundland and Labrador joined the other Atlantic provinces in a regional "bubble" in July, allowing residents to travel within the region without self-isolating upon arrival.

The paper also cites health factors in the province that are "critical" to analyze when developing COVID-19 policies, noting Newfoundland and Labrador has high rates of smoking, obesity, metabolic disease and cancer.

Fitzgerald was set to appear as a witness Thursday, but the proceedings were cut short after a lawyer working on the case felt ill and was unable to return to the courtroom. Rahman is scheduled to resume his testimony in court Friday morning.

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