Cautious for good reason? Why P.E.I. is opening to tourists more slowly than its neighbours

·5 min read
Various images of the entry point on the PEI side of the Confederation Bridge. Health officials ask for documentation as the Atlantic bubble is still closed. Dec. 3, 2020 (John Robertson/CBC - image credit)
Various images of the entry point on the PEI side of the Confederation Bridge. Health officials ask for documentation as the Atlantic bubble is still closed. Dec. 3, 2020 (John Robertson/CBC - image credit)

The unveiling of the other Atlantic provinces' re-opening plans has triggered some jealousy in Prince Edward Island's tourism industry.

As of now, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are planning to welcome fully vaccinated tourists from across the country on July 1st.

If all goes well in Nova Scotia, that province could open up to vaccinated Canadians by mid-July.

P.E.I., on the other hand, won't let regular tourists from outside the region visit until September, after the peak tourism season. That's unless the Island's vaccine rollout speeds up considerably.

"I think it would be very hard for us an industry to stand by and watch those provinces — if they manage to pull this off safely — have a better tourism year than us," said Dan James, the owner of Kindred Spirits Inn and Cottages in Cavendish.

"It would be very hard for us to watch that."

So why is P.E.I. opening its borders more slowly than its Atlantic counterparts?

Capacity issues

When Premier Dennis King was asked that question, he said this: "Our capacity here to deal with an outbreak is severely limited."

It's not clear whether the premier meant that medical capacity on P.E.I. is MORE limited than in other Atlantic provinces choosing to open faster.

What is clear is that the Island's healthcare system is strained.

As a spokesperson with Health PEI pointed out, there are nurse and doctor shortages "across the board." On top of that, many of the staff members we do have are working at COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics, "further stretching resources."

P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison is seen here getting her first COVID-19 vaccine shot in early May.  She wants 80% of Islanders fully vaccinated before the province welcomes tourists from across Canada.
P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison is seen here getting her first COVID-19 vaccine shot in early May. She wants 80% of Islanders fully vaccinated before the province welcomes tourists from across Canada. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

The P.E.I. chief public health officer's fear: A mass influx of summer tourists to the Island and a major COVID-19 outbreak could overwhelm that already-stretched system.

"We're one of the most densely populated provinces in the country — and in the summer, we typically have such large volumes of people coming for a short period of time," Dr. Heather Morrison told CBC News on Thursday.

"We don't have a large number of hospitals within the province that we can divert patients to, if there's an outbreak of COVID-19.

"But also, how do we look after other patients if we have a large outbreak with people in the hospital?"

'Typically, people who come are healthy to start with. So it'd be the occasional thing that would happen unexpectedly while they're on vacation.' - Corinne Rowswell

Health PEI acknowledges that the demands tourists typically place on the healthcare system are minimal.

While Prince Edward Island's population doubles during the summer in a normal year, that leads to just a 5- to 10-per-cent increase in emergency room visits. Once there, very few tourists end up needing hospital beds.

"Typically, people who come are healthy to start with. So it'd be the occasional thing that would happen unexpectedly while they're on vacation," said Corinne Rowswell, Health PEI's chief operating officer.

Corinne Rowswell, the Chief Operating Officer of Health PEI, says the Island's healthcare system is built for its year-round population, and is already stretched thin.  She says welcoming in too many tourists would put more pressure on the system, and leave it less equipped to deal with an outbreak.
Corinne Rowswell, the Chief Operating Officer of Health PEI, says the Island's healthcare system is built for its year-round population, and is already stretched thin. She says welcoming in too many tourists would put more pressure on the system, and leave it less equipped to deal with an outbreak. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

What's the risk?

So, what then would be the risk of welcoming in fully vaccinated tourists from across Canada, particularly if they are to be tested on arrival? How likely are they to cause — or get caught up in — an outbreak of COVID-19?

CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin asked Morrison that question in their regular interview segment Thursday.

Morrison didn't get into a risk assessment, instead focusing on the need to keep immunizing Islanders.

Once 80 per cent of them have had two doses of vaccine, whenever that is, Morrison said she would feel more comfortable welcoming in tourists from beyond the region.

"It's actually more about making sure we're protecting Islanders with two doses of vaccine. If we open up all at once, and go too soon, we won't have had a chance to protect people with two doses of vaccine," she said.

Businesses fearful, health officials confident

Whatever the logic behind P.E.I.'s slower re-opening plan, it has left seasonal businesses worried about the summer ahead. Some fear their revenues will plummet even lower than last year's figures, which included Atlantic bubble tourists starting the first week of July.

On the flip side, the Island's cautious approach has healthcare workers approaching the summer with more optimism.

"I'm pretty confident in our situation. I'm not expecting a huge influx of COVID-19 into the emergency department," said Mike MacDonald, the nurse manager at the QEH Emergency Department.

"They're testing at the border. They've got follow-up and contact tracing, and all those things in place. And based on what we've seen over the last 16 months or so, we've done an excellent job. So I'm not concerned."

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