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Editorial: About that elderly Rossland couple and their COVID-19 fine

Photo of Paterson border crossing by Wbaron at en.wikipedia

Readers will have seen a news item about a couple who crossed the border after getting medical services in the United States, and were accused of not following required procedures, and were issued a fine for $3,450 for their “non-compliance.”  But there is much more to that story, and readers should know what really happened before rushing to judgment.

First, let me be clear about my own opinions on non-compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.  I have no patience for those who downplay the hazards of the virus or those who protest about the restrictions or fail to follow them. I am distressed when I see people wearing their masks under their noses. I despise the vocalizations and demonstrations of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.  I think they richly deserve any and all fines imposed upon them.

 I have enormous sympathy for all of us whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by the illness and the restrictions, and I don’t pretend to think that our powers-that-be have done everything as well as possible, in spite of their best efforts, or that injustices have not occurred.

This couple’s story proves that at least one injustice has occurred, and that they should never have been charged or fined.  Their side of the story tells us that they were doing their best to comply with all the restrictions, and they received confusing, contradictory, and unhelpful information and instructions from different authorities – after spending many, many hours on the phone trying to find out what they should do and how they should get it done.

I have received their account of what they went through, why they were crossing the border, and how they tried to comply with the requirements.

First, why were they even crossing the border?

These people are both dual citizens.  They have numerous serious health problems, and long-standing relationships with specialists south of the border – including a cardiologist and an oncologist -- specialists who are already very familiar with them, and who are closer in travel time than comparable specialists in Canada, and who are covered by their health insurance.  They also have a local family doctor here in Rossland who takes care of them here and knows all the care they receive from their US specialists.

What are their health problems, you wonder? 

Here’s a partial list they provided: The 83-year-old man has had several heart surgeries, and operations and treatment for malignant melanomas.  He has had diabetes for decades. He has fractured vertebrae twice in the past few years. He can no longer sleep in a normal bed and sleeps in a specially-purchased orthopedic reclining chair at home.  He requires a CPAP machine to sleep because of significant sleep apnea.  He says that his local doctor considers him to be “one of his three most fragile patients.”

His 69-year-old wife is a retired nurse and acts as his caregiver, but has had her own life-threatening health problems.

They assure me that they take the pandemic and all precautions very seriously and have always complied willingly with the recommendations and restrictions.  They recognize the hazards and the need for everyone to be diligent in helping to curb the disease.

 They feel that this charge and fine are unjust, because, to quote them directly,  “the infraction was minor, unintended, and would not have happened had the directions been clear. For aging seniors this is a huge expense.  We have never abused the law.  We are not disputing the integrity of the CBSA border security staff. It had to be as confusing to them as it was to us.”

So how did the “infraction” happen?  For those who have the patience to read through the staggering difficulty – rather, impossibility -- of reaching anyone in authority who could provide clear direction for a couple who wanted to do the right thing, here is a summary of events leading up to the fine, based on a diary the man kept, and including several quotes from that diary.

In early January of this year, he had reason to make appointments with both his cardiologist and his oncologist south of the border.  The appointments were on March 4, in hopes that they would be able to cross the border for medical treatment.

His diary says,  

About mid-January) I called the Paterson border office (CBSA) seeking information about what would be necessary for a same-day round-trip to the US for medical purposes.

“In the past, my medical treatment, even with Covid, was always permitted as a valid reason to cross the border.  The CBSA officer I spoke with told me that some changes were expected, and I should check back several days before crossing.

“I contacted the border again and was told I would need a negative Covid test within 72 hours before returning to Canada, and that a test done in Canada would be permissible, because the Colville Washington hospital would only test symptomatic patients.

“I then attempted to arrange a Covid test appointment. Health Canada told me they were only being given in private laboratories. Making it further frustrating, I found the only private laboratories doing testing are in Vancouver, 600 km away and nearly impossible for me to reach since I am barely ambulatory. Spending nearly another full day on the phone, I was able to contact a gentleman at Health Canada.  He arranged for a test to be conducted on March 2nd, two days prior to my now firmly scheduled March 4 appointments. He was reluctant to make it the day prior to our travel because results may not be available in time.

“I called the Paterson CBSA office again to make sure there were no further changes. I was told, "changes are always coming, we hardly know from one day to the next, but what you are doing is OK for now."

On March 3, the couple received a phone call from the hospital in Colville, Washington, offering them their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Friday, March 5 – the day after their other medical appointments in the US.  This was earlier than they could have obtained their vaccinations in Canada, and they also reasoned that if they got their shots in Washington, it would free up two more doses for elderly people here in Canada.

His next diary entry says,

“I called Paterson CBSA again, to see if this would be allowed. It was an evening call.  The officer first told me it was not permissible, and then asked me to wait because the officer I was speaking with was junior and he wanted to confirm with some of his associates. He came back on the phone and said we would be OK to go beyond our 72 hours because "getting a vaccination is certainly a medical reason to travel.”

“ … He said if I had a doctor’s appointment in the US that day, meaning Friday the 5th, I would be able to return to Canada without penalty.”

So they were able to get an appointment with a doctor in the US for March 5, besides their vaccine appointment on that day.

When they returned to the border after receiving their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the doctor’s appointment, they were two and a half hours beyond the above-mentioned 72-hour limit following their mandatory tests – which limit they had been assured they could safely exceed.  The diary details what happened next:

“Officials at the border held us for over an hour while they discussed the situation internally and with somebody at Health Canada. A polite but very stern young lady eventually provided two options: either be fined $3,400 each if we return to Canada for any reason, or go back to the USA and get another Covid test. She clearly and repeatedly stated Health Canada claims having a Covid vaccination was not considered medical.  When I explained he had no choice but to return to Canada because of required medicines and sleep situation, the officer said "you will be served by the RCMP tomorrow.”

The couple returned home and immediately went into quarantine, and tried to contact the website for support with their home COVID test kit, issued at the border.  That effort alone took over two hours on the telephone, and then their call was cut off.

Back to the man’s diary – he wrote,

“I called the Paterson border security office again and spoke with an officer. He said they are familiar with our circumstances but, under no circumstances was that person from Switch Health qualified to speak on behalf of border security. The officer understood there had been problems but not that affected our border.  He invited me to call back Monday to speak with his supervisor. In the interim, my wife and I are filled with anxiety.

 “BTW -- for an hour on Sunday, March 7, I attempted again to contact switchhealth.ca for help about their website. Soothing music but no answer.

“3/8/21 – Spoke with a CBSA Supervisor at approx. 11:15 am. Nothing he can do about it. We're at the mercy of Health Canada. Gave us an email address and phone number to contact. He suggested we have a doctor note from our Canadian doctor, something in writing indicating it was OK to cross the border for our second shots.

“3/8 -- at approximately 12:15 PM:  Spoke with a man at Health Canada -- we must have a note from our Canadian doctor stating it is medically necessary for us to return to the US for our second Pfizer shot, since Pfizer is not interchangeable with any other Covid vaccination.

“3/8 – Called 877-770-7747; a 50-minute wait.  Someone listened as I went through the litany of what has happened with us. She can schedule another test inside Canada. Their calendar does not go out until the 26th. To have a test on Wednesday, March 24 we will need to call back on the 22nd as early after 8 AM opening as possible. It will also require a letter from our doctor. I also hope to get something from Health Canada indicating travel to the US for the second shot is permissible)

“3/8 -- at approximately 4:20 PM, initiated a one hour and 57 minute wait on the switchhealth.ca  line,  888-966-6531. No answer. Gave up.

“Sunday 3/21:  At approximately 13:00, I called Paterson border office and spoke with Officer number 19383.

“The officer explained they are told that going for a Covid vaccine is not considered valid medical reason. Their instructions at the border indicate we will need to have a COVID test done in the United States, in spite of all of our efforts here. I am to call health Canada at 1-833-784-4397, and must get an exemption in writing from them.

“Called 1-833-784-4397 at approximately 1320 and spoke with a helpful woman. She took me to travel.gc.ca website where she was going to direct me to a section that would help with our situation (which I explained in detail, and to which she said, it's a lot of information but I think I can help.)

“She could not find the section so she told me this: (Verbatim because I recorded the conversation on my computer.) “When you cross the border you say you are just going for the vaccination, here is the letter from my doctor. I'm coming back in less than a day and when you cross the border again that's an OK thing, but now it would be stupid to ask you to go pick up another Covid test when you are OK from your last one and so you need a letter from your doctor saying it's OK if I go today because I need my vaccine, I need it and I'm going to get it now and I'm coming back today.”

“I asked if she could put this in writing. She said “No, we don't do that but that's all you should need, the letter from your doctor and a Covid test that could be done in Canada but we're still within the 72 hours.”  I told her the officers at the border said a Covid vaccination is not considered a valid medical reason. She said, "Of course it is.” 

The couple obtained a strongly-worded letter from their local doctor to show at the border.  

“3/22 -- started calling for an appointment for Covid testing at 0800 as directed. Spoke with an extremely, extremely rude individual who absolutely refused to help and said we were not entitled to a test.  I attempted to plead our case. She hung up on me.  I called back and spoke with a pleasant in Winnipeg.  She had patience with a slow computer and was able to book appointments for us in Trail for 11:00 AM and 11:10 AM. A nice lady from the IHA center called back to confirm the appointments. She had to go to a higher authority but all was okayed.

“3/24 – We both had our Covid tests as scheduled. Both were negative.

“3/26 -- We crossed the border into the United States at 11: 25 AM, and had our second Covid inoculation in Colville and made the doctor’s appointment at 3:00 and reappeared at the Canadian border at approximately 3:45 PM. The same officer was again on duty.  We were held for over an hour. The officer said she had to connect with Health Canada and "this time I'll have them speak with you directly."  That never happened.  I was ultimately given the same two choices, either return to the US and get another negative Covid test there, or enter Canada and be fined for breaking the law. I again explained that I cannot go to Spokane and stay overnight for any reason because of my broken back and medical requirements for sleeping.  I again showed the strongly worded letter from my family physician to the officer. She said the RCMP would be visiting immediately at the place of our quarantine to issue a summons.

“3/26 – The RCMP were at our door approximately an hour after I arrived home. Two polite officers wrote the summons for $3,450 and advised me if I wanted to dispute the summons I should ask for a trial.”

There was another set of home tests, and over four more telephone hours spent on hold.

“4/1 -- An article appeared in the local news and was broadcast over local radio about the 82-year-old man and 68-year-old woman who disobey the law. This caused additional stress and anxiety for both of us, as we had tried very hard to comply with the law. It said we had not given proof of negative tests, and we had given our proof.

“4/2 --  I called CBSA at 800-461-9999 and heard the following, (retyped over a half dozen phone calls where I tried to keep pace with the recorded message): “On March 18 the government of Canada issued certain restrictions including restrictions on foreign nationals wishing to enter Canada. these restrictions apply to all modes of transportation and travelers must isolate or quarantine themselves for 14 days whether they are symptomatic or non-symptomatic. Individuals who receive or provide other essential services are exempt as long as they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 upon entry to Canada.  [Emphasis added.]  Certain other Provincial requirements may apply.”

There were more tests (all negative, and all requiring more frustrating time spent waiting on the telephone and dealing with the courier not finding their address for pick-up) and more anxiety and longer quarantine periods.

To sum up: some officials told them that getting their shots was a valid medical reason to cross the border; others told them it wasn’t. They spent hours trying to clarify the requirements. They got the required COVID tests and provided the results in as a timely fashion as possible. They provided a letter from their doctor.

Now, dear readers, does that sound like the careless scoff-laws we may all have assumed they were, from the earlier report?  I don’t think so.

It sounds like our bureaucracies suffer from siloization, lack of clear communication, and mixed messaging.  

These things may be understandable, given the novelty of this particular virus and the changing information about it – but, given the conflicting instructions this couple were given and their earnest attempts to comply, I suggest that they should have been given the benefit of the doubt. 

It seems that these medically fragile people are being punished for the failings of our bureaucratic silos.