Airport COVID testing starts this week. What do you need to know?

Calgary launches testing programme that could shorten – or perhaps eliminate – quarantine periods for international arrivals

Vancouver prices pre-departure COVID tests at $150

COVID airport testing
The domestic check-in area at Vancouver International Airport October 26, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Finally, COVID testing is coming to a Canadian airport this week as the federal government increases its investment in getting people flying.

If you arrive at Calgary International from outside the country, you’ll be offered a new choice starting Monday: quarantine for two weeks or get a COVID test at the airport. The answer could radically reshape the way Canada handles international passengers.

“The start of this unique trial is a significant first step in giving peace of mind to those who need to travel and were apprehensive due to the rigorous quarantine requirements and testing restrictions,” said Arved von zur Muehlen, WestJet Chief Commercial Officer. “This pilot is the health and science-based approach that WestJet and our industry has been seeking.”

Up to now, the federal government has forced most people arriving in the country to quarantine for 14 days. The Calgary programme will be the first to offer a COVID test as an alternative.

Who is eligible?

Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving in Calgary and staying in Alberta for 14 days. Most foreign citizens remain barred from the country, and anyone planning to leave Alberta within two weeks of arriving must still quarantine. Anyone showing signs of COVID infection is also not eligible.

The first eligible passengers arrived Monday on Westjet flight 1511 from Los Angeles.

How does it work?

Once you land in Calgary, you will be offered a test at the airport. A health professional will take a sample and send you home to quarantine and wait for the results. Assuming the test comes back negative – the government estimates it will take two days – you’re free to leave your home and live your life, so long as you remain symptom free. You’ll also have to get a second test six or seven days later. If you don’t respect the programme’s rules, you risk getting a ticket.

You will have to wear a mask in public and you’ll have to avoid visiting high-risk groups, such as a seniors’ home, if you participate in the pilot.

What flights are eligible?

Among Canadian airlines, only Westjet is flying out of Canada from Calgary in November. Air Canada plans to add U.S.-bound flights to Houston and Phoenix from Calgary starting next month. American, Delta, United, and KLM also offer international service to Calgary.

How much does it cost?

The governments of Alberta and Canada are behind this testing initiative. Neither has released a cost for passengers.

Is testing available at other airports?

Not yet. The project in Calgary will look at whether and how the tests work in an airport setting. If it is successful, the government of Alberta hopes the tests will be expanded to other locations.

That said, other airport COVID pilot projects are moving ahead.

The front entrance of Vancouver International’s domestic check-in. The temporary COVID testing facility will be set up at the far end of the terminal (left) (photo: Brett Ballah).

Vancouver International and Westjet are partnering on pre-departure COVID testing at the Canadian West Coast airport. An airport vice president, Robyn McVicker, and Westjet’s Vice President of Safety, Security and Quality Billy Nolen released details in a blog post.

They will set up a temporary trailer where research coordinators will administer pre-departure COVID tests. The facility will be open four hours a day and shouldn’t add much time to the overall journey, McVicker and Nolen said.

The goal is to test the test and test the process. And, one would think, test whether people are prepared to pay $150 for the privilege. Nolen revealed the cost in a separate post last week. The University of British Columbia will lead the study.

“Wider availability of broad-spectrum COVID testing, along with post-travel testing, will be a way of ensuring the safety of citizens, while helping bolster economies that have been hard hit by the drop in tourism,” wrote Nolen. “Many nations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Middle East and Asia require a negative test certificate within 72 hours of arrival in order to be deemed admissible to the country.”

Gathering COVID testing data in Toronto

Late last week, the federal government moved on another COVID airport testing front. It announced $2.5 million in funding for a McMaster Health Labs test of arriving passengers in Toronto.

MHL is working with Air Canada to test arriving passengers on international flights. Eligible passengers give one sample at the airport, another seven days later, and a third 14 days later. The university is gathering data to see if the quarantine period can be shortened.

Unlike the Calgary pilot, however, people participating in the Toronto study still have to serve the full two-week quarantine. Air Canada said early results suggest the Canadian quarantine might be longer than necessary.

The government funding means researchers can crunch the numbers and publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal.

They hope to release interim results this month.

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Categories: Safety

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