Canadians who cross border for vaccine must quarantine on return, Ottawa says
New statement attempts to clarify reports the vaccine may be considered an essential medical service
Canadians looking to drive across the border to the United States for the sole purpose of getting a COVID-19 vaccine are not exempt from mandatory quarantine upon their return.
In a statement late Wednesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said quarantine exemptions now in place are not intended for those travelling abroad to get vaccinated against the coronavirus disease.
"Testing and quarantine exemptions for travellers returning to Canada after receiving essential medical services in a foreign country was not intended to be used for those seeking to receive a COVID-19 vaccination," a PHAC spokesperson said in an email.
"This provision is in place to allow Canadians who are seeking life-saving medical treatment outside of Canada."
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The statement attempts to clarify reports earlier this week that the vaccine may be considered an essential medical service and that Canadians crossing the border could be exempt from the 14-day quarantine when they return.
Earlier this week, Albertans who attended a Montana vaccination clinic were told they were exempted from having to quarantine for 14 days.
The Canada-U.S. border has been closed in light of the pandemic to non-essential travel for purposes such as tourism and recreation since March 2020. Non-essential travellers entering Canada through the land border need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before arrival, in addition to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for returning non-essential travellers.
But since February, patients undergoing essential medical treatment can skip those requirements only if they have a written statement from a licensed health-care practitioner in Canada — and from a practitioner in the country where they are receiving the treatment.
Some U.S. states have been offering free vaccines to Canadian truck drivers who transport goods across the border. Those essential cross-border workers are not subject to testing and quarantine under federal public health rules.
The health agency said in the statement that "COVID-19 vaccines are widely available in Canada." Canada has administered 19.4 million doses with 47.9 per cent of the total population having received at least one dose, according to CBC's vaccine tracking data.
U.S. says vaccine travel not essential
Canada's top public health agency also points out the decision on whether entry into the U.S. is allowed would fall to American border authorities.
On Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Canadians attempting to drive across the American border solely for a COVID-19 vaccination, even with a doctor's referral, would be denied entry.
"Travel for the sole purpose of obtaining a vaccination is not permissible under current travel restrictions," an agency spokesperson said.
"If a person is entering the U.S. for legitimate travel reasons, as allowed under current restriction guidelines, and receives a vaccine incidental to their trip, it is not part of the overall admissibility determination."
The Canada Border Services Agency told CBC News in a statement that, while Canadians can travel to the United States for essential medical treatment, travelling south to get a COVID-19 vaccination does not exempt people from border quarantining protocols.
"Please note, the CBSA does not provide out-of-the-ordinary treatment to Canadian residents who visit cross-border vaccine clinics; the usual processing procedures at the border are followed regarding determinations made for quarantine and testing exemptions," the statement said.
Maximum penalties for failing to comply with mandatory quarantine rules on travellers returning to Canada include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.
If someone jeopardizes another's life "while wilfully or recklessly contravening the act" the penalties are even greater: $1 million or three years in prison, or both.
The Conservative Party of Canada criticized the rules, saying that if cities such as Detroit have surplus doses Canadians should be able to travel south for a shot.
"While large sections of Canada remain in lockdown during this third wave caused by our lack of vaccines, we cannot afford to waste the opportunity to secure more," the statement said.
With files from The Canadian Press