Safety

A glimmer of hope for an end to 14-day quarantine

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Government will try COVID testing for arriving passengers to replace 14-day quarantine

Governments of Alberta and Canada will start a trial November 2

Calgary International Airport President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Sartor speaks at a news conference October 22, 2020 (Youtube).

Westjet is welcoming a new government trial that could end Canada’s 14-day quarantine period for international arrivals.

The governments of Alberta and Canada announced a pilot project to replace the quarantine with COVID testing for eligible passengers. Government, airport, and airline executives announced the project Thursday in Calgary. YYC is one of four airports currently allowed to receive overseas travellers.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that today’s announcement is actually the first piece of good news that we have received as an airline since February 29th,” said Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims at a news conference. Sims said the 29th was the first day he watched cancellations outstrip new bookings because of COVID-19.

Westjet President and CEO Ed Sims gestures at a news conference in Calgary October 22, 2020 (Youtube).

“I’m incredibly pleased and thankful for the hard work that has gone in in Edmonton, in Ottawa to bring this announcement to fruition,” he said. The process could reshape the way international arrivals are handled in Canada and end the mandatory quarantine currently in place.

Starting November 2, international passengers arriving in Calgary will be offered a COVID-19 test. If they take it, they’ll go into quarantine until their results arrive, usually 2-3 days. If the test comes back negative, the travellers are free to live their lives so long as they take another test a week later.

There are conditions, however. For one, the pilot only applies to Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or authorized workers and only if they have no symptoms. On top of that, passengers will have to stay in Alberta for 14 days.

Positive results

Airlines have been vocal pressing Ottawa to take steps to reopen the border to travel. Canada has barred most foreigners travellers from the country, with few exceptions. And Ottawa continues to advise against travel outside the country.

Air Canada has been gathering data on international arrivals running its own tests in Toronto. The airport has set up a process to offer arriving passengers a COVID test. Air Canada said it was an attempt to gather information and promote a science-based approach to disease control. The company said in early October that less than one per cent of passengers tested positive for COVID on arrival.

By early October, McMaster Health Labs reported more than 8,000 people had participated. MHL is working with Air Canada to gather data. Researchers said, however, they need to conduct further study before drawing any conclusions.

A screen grab from an explanatory video produced by Air Canada explaining COVID testing (Air Canada).

“No definitive conclusions can be drawn without greater enrollment and follow-up,” McMaster Labs said on October 3. “Preliminary analyses and results are expected in late October with full analysis continuing into November.”

The announcement in Calgary adds the weight of the federal government to the trial.

“Any changes to public health measures, including testing and quarantine requirements must be supported by strong scientific evidence,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu in a statement. 

Anxious to end Canada’s quarantine

Air Canada welcomed the pilot project. The company said it provided data to the federal and Alberta governments for the pilot’s launch. Air Canada is among the airlines calling for a more coordinated federal approach to reopening travel.

“We know Canadians expect the rich data from these test results to lead to a loosening of the federal government’s quarantine requirements immediately,” said AC President and CEO Calin Rovinescu in a statement. “I have personally heard from numerous business leaders in Canada and from other countries who are very anxious to see the quarantine requirements safely abridged as soon as possible.”

Westjet’s Sims said the move was crucial to his airline’s strategy of building its international hub in Calgary.

“This cannot be overstated in terms of its importance of giving peace of mind and assurance to our guests,” he said. “This pivot is a health and science-based approach that Westjet and indeed all Canadian aviation have been waiting for.”

“This is an announcement that I have been waiting for – and that we have all been waiting for – for months,” said Calgary International Airport President and CEO Bob Sartor.

Sartor called the announcement a “lifeline” for airlines and airports. That’s because airports in Canada rely on passengers for the vast majority of their revenues, and the pandemic has seen them lose billions in revenue.

While Calgary is the first pilot site, said Sartor, “I would daresay we won’t be the last. We really hope that this pilot will help in reducing and one day eliminating the 14-day self isolation requirements that so crippled our nation.”

Anyone not participating in the trial will have to self-isolate until the end of their quarantine period, 14 days.

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