Trucker vaccine mandate raises questions about risk posed by unvaccinated drivers
Some specialists support new mandate for cross-border truck drivers, others doubt its effectiveness
Unvaccinated truck drivers crossing over the border into Canada may pose a risk of transmitting COVID-19 to the general public, say some infectious diseases doctors and at least one public health expert.
But other specialists who spoke to CBC News said they were skeptical about whether the new federal vaccine mandate for truckers is needed — and questioned how much these drivers could contribute overall to the potential spread of the virus.
"A vaccine requirement for a select group of people I don't think is highly likely to make a big, huge difference in the short-to-medium term," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
She noted that there's "extremely high transmission of COVID-19" on both sides of the border among unvaccinated people.
"Of course, [truck drivers] could be spreaders of COVID, but so could everyone else right now," Saxinger said. "So, it's kind of a relative thing."
As of January 15, a federal mandate requires that Canadian truckers must be vaccinated if they want to avoid quarantine and molecular tests. Unvaccinated American big-riggers will be turned back at the border
Trade associations on both sides of the border have said the restriction would put additional strain on supply chains amid the latest COVID-19 surge and severe worker shortages.
About 10 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian truckers who cross the border may not be able to work those routes because they haven't been vaccinated, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
"Do I think an individual group of thousands of people being vaccinated or not will materially affect the shape of the pandemic in the next short while," Saxinger asked. "Not really."
'Doesn't make any sense'
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., suggested the trucker vaccine mandate is similar to other government policies attempting to protect people from COVID-19 at the border.
"There's kind of this idea that they're keeping COVID out," he said. "That doesn't make any sense. Omicron is not only here it's proven itself to be rapidly expanding all over the world.
"We've accepted the fact that this thing is just a beast when it comes to transmission."
Chakrabarti said while there is some reduction of transmission with those who are vaccinated, and "you must weigh the pros and cons."
"There might be a little tiny bit of benefit you get," from the new restriction on unvaccinated cross-border truck drivers, he said. "But what you're losing is [thousands of] people helping bring in goods and making our supply chain work."
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From a public health point of view, though, proof of vaccine policy applied to truckers "makes a lot of sense," said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
"More than any sector of workers, truckers are constantly mobile and cross many jurisdictions," he said in an email to CBC News. "They may spend a long time in their trucks, on the road, but they also have many point of contacts across jurisdictions, and load/unload their goods in warehouses and such where we have seen outbreaks occur in previous waves.
"An unvaccinated, contagious trucker could literally be carrying the virus from place or place."
Epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, agreed unvaccinated truckers do pose some threat to contributing to community transmission and impacting the health-care system.
'Risk is not zero'
"Unvaccinated infected people are more likely to be symptomatic and carry viral load longer than the vaccinated, so overall will transmit more," he said in an email to CBC News.
"Should an unvaccinated trucker get sick while in Canada, they have a higher probability of needing hospital care, which we are woefully short of. So the risk is not zero."
However Deonandan acknowledged that that potential risk does need to be balanced against the "pressing need to maintain our supply chains, since Omicron-driven absenteeism is threatening our ability to receive goods in a timely fashion."
Christopher Labos, a Montreal epidemiologist and cardiologist, said what truck drivers do when they cross the border is largely going to determine how much of a public health risk they pose.
For example, if somebody else unloads the truck of a driver who has crossed the border into Canada and the driver then turns back without interacting with anybody, "the impact that they're going to have in terms of spreading the virus is going to be pretty minimal," Labos said.
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"But if they are doing long trips and they're staying in hotels and going to restaurants and eating on the way, they're going to come into contact with a lot of people," he said.
'Some border control measures'
It's likely some truckers coming into Canada who are unvaccinated are infected with COVID-19, Labos said. "And so if they come into the country and interact with other people, that will help facilitate the spread of the virus.
"I think that the reality of that is clear. We need to have some border control measures to at least help minimize the importation of COVID cases."
Labos said throughout the pandemic, the challenge has been to find a compromise between the ideal and the practical.
"You always want to try to find the balance that gives you the greatest degree of benefit with the smallest degree of inconvenience," he said.
"There's no right or wrong answer on this issue, but it is a potentially problematic issue."
With files from Peter Zimonjic