WASHINGTON — It's the news nearly four million Canadians have been waiting to hear: people who received doses of two different COVID-19 vaccines will qualify as fully vaccinated when the U.S. reopens its land borders to non-essential travel next month.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the announcement late Friday, capping a whirlwind week of developments signalling the imminent end of 19 months of pandemic-induced North American travel restrictions.
People with "any combination" of two doses of a vaccine approved by either the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization "are considered fully vaccinated," the agency said in a statement.
"While CDC has not recommended mixing types of vaccine in a primary series, we recognize that this is increasingly common in other countries so should be accepted for the interpretation of vaccine records."
The news also confirms what the White House acknowledged earlier Friday would be a likely development: that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, approved by the WHO but not the FDA, would be deemed acceptable.
The CDC had already given the green light to overseas travellers who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, but until Friday had not expressly confirmed the same policy for those crossing into the U.S. by land.
Earlier in the day, White House officials said the new rules would go into effect Nov. 8, both at the land borders and for people arriving from a number of overseas countries where travel to the U.S. has been banned since March 2020.
The U.S. won't ask its forthcoming visitors to submit to a COVID-19 test prior to departure, unlike Canada, which requires travellers to show proof of a recent negative test — a costly condition of entry that runs about $200 a pop.
New York congressman Brian Higgins, who has been relentlessly campaigning against the travel restrictions for months, is urging the federal government in Ottawa to reconsider that rule.
"I think that the U.S. decision to allow Canadians coming into the United States without a test again underscores the potency of the vaccine," Higgins said in an interview Friday.
"I would like to see that reciprocated by our Canadian neighbours."
The Nov. 8 start date comes a full three months after Canada initially began allowing fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents back across the border in August.
"It will be what we make of it, and I'm happy that people can now be reunited with loved ones and all those other issues," Higgins said.
"But the fact of the matter is, the U.S. border to our Canadian neighbours should have been opened months ago."
The U.S. Travel Association has estimated the Mexican and Canadian border closures have been costing American businesses $1.5 billion in travel exports — domestic spending by foreign visitors — every month.
As for the test requirement, public health officials in Canada made it clear Friday it's not going away any time soon.
"We're in a situation in Canada where our health systems are still very fragile," said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer.
"We need to still be very vigilant and careful at this point, but we will have ongoing discussions with the CDC and the United States to see what is reasonable in the trajectory going forward."
The White House has never explained publicly why it waited three months after Canada began relaxing its restrictions. Speculation focused on a desire to open both land borders at the same time, something a burgeoning immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border made politically difficult.
"Canada shouldn't have had to wait for Mexico," said Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the D.C.-based Canadian American Business Council.
"The science, the politics, the policy, the reality — none of that would lead you to say, 'Let's do these things in tandem.' What would be better to do in tandem is Canada and the U.S. work in tandem across our common border, and Mexico and the U.S. work in tandem across that border. That makes some sense."
Higgins agreed, noting that the U.S. is letting vaccinated travellers in Mexico enter the country even though only 38.5 per cent of that country's population is fully vaccinated.
"This whole argument that, 'We have to wait until we achieve a higher rate of vaccination,' is thrown out the window," he said.
"The U.S. federal government proved my point on that — they're saying, 'Hey, look, we'd like to have more Mexicans as a percentage of the adult population vaccinated, but if they're vaccinated, they're safe."
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland demurred Thursday when asked whether, in the future, Canada would press its case for the U.S. to use separate and distinct policy approaches to its northern and southern borders.
"I think that we need to be respectful of every other country's sovereign decisions around its borders, and of every other country's sovereign right to manage its borders as it sees fit," Freeland said.
"Having said that, I think it's also worth pointing out that Canada has a very effective, very close partnership with the United States, as we should."
Since the dawn of the NAFTA age 25 years ago, the U.S. has tended to see its two frontiers through an economic lens — and in that context, they are more similar than most Canadians realize, said Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor.
"People have the idea that in Mexico, what you've got is a whole bunch of people trying to get across the border illegally, and maybe you have some imports and exports of tomatoes and tequila. That's not it," Anderson said.
"It's very similar (to Canada) in terms of the ports of entry. A lot of business people are crossing on a regular basis too, and of course, there's a lot of crossing for tourism, there's a lot of family crossings — the volume of people crossing legally is huge there as well."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press