The United States is making it mandatory by early next week for Canadians and other foreign visitors who arrive by air to get a COVID-19 test within 24 hours of their departure, regardless of their vaccination status, as part of a pandemic battle plan for the winter months.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced his administration’s plan on Thursday during a visit to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Until now, international air travellers have been required to get a test within 72 hours of leaving for the U.S. A senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity told CBC News that the new protocol will not apply to those crossing the Canada-U.S. land border.
“We’re pulling out all the stops to get people maximum protection from this pandemic,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a briefing on Thursday in advance of Biden’s afternoon announcement.
“Our view and belief, and the belief of our medical team, is that we have the tools to keep people safe. We’re executing on a robust plan that builds off of all the actions we’ve taken to date — we are not starting from scratch here.”
Fully vaccinated travellers entering the U.S. by land from Canada currently do not need to present a negative COVID-19 test, as long as they show proof of vaccination or attest to their vaccination status upon request by a border agent. That rule has been in place since the land border reopened to non-essential travel on Nov. 8.
In Canada, all those entering the country must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test result, taken within 72 hours of arrival by land or air.
However, since Nov. 30, the rule has been adjusted for Canadians who depart and re-enter Canada within 72 hours, meaning those taking trips of that duration or shorter no longer need proof of a negative COVID-19 test to return home.
Under the U.S. plan to combat the spread of COVID-19 over the winter months, the Transportation Security Administration is extending its mask mandates on transit through March 18. Passengers on domestic flights, trains and public transportation will be required to continue wearing face masks.
Other components of the 10-point U.S. strategy include:
- A plan to expand access to booster shots, with a comprehensive outreach effort to convince nearly 100 million eligible Americans to get one.
- New family vaccination clinics to provide a one-stop vaccination stop for entire households.
- Accelerating the effort to safely vaccinate children under the age of five.
- Expanding the availability of at-home test kits.
- Rapid response teams to help with widespread omicron outbreaks.
- Another 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses donated internationally within the next 100 days.
Biden’s speech outlining the plan comes a day after the U.S. confirmed its first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in a traveller who arrived in San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22.
U.S. health officials confirmed a second case of the variant on Thursday in Minnesota. It involved a vaccinated man who had attended an anime convention just before Thanksgiving in New York City that drew an estimated 50,000 people. That would suggest the variant has begun to spread within the U.S.
The new variant is “cause for concern but not panic,” Biden said.
COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. have dropped by about half since the delta peak in August and September, but at about 86,000 new infections per day, the numbers are still worrisomely high, especially heading into the holidays, when people travel and gather with family.