Pre-flight COVID testing opens at Vancouver International

Pre-flight COVID testing pilot project is seen as a key step in restoring confidence in travel

Canada’s aviation industry has grown increasingly vocal on the need for a national testing strategy

pre-flight COVID testing
The pre-flight COVID testing centre is set up in a shipping container on the departures level of Vancouver International Airport (Western Aviation News).

Update Dec. 31, 2020: The government will require pre-flight tests on international flights arriving in Canada as of January 7, 2021.

Canada’s first pre-flight COVID testing trial has opened at Vancouver International Airport as pressure grows for a national testing strategy to help kick-start the aviation industry.

The pilot project is a collaboration between the airport, Westjet and the University of British Columbia. The facility opened quietly Monday.

For now, the testing centre has a distinctly temporary look. It’s housed in a converted former shipping container on the road outside the Westjet departures area.

Westjet passengers arrive at YVR and check in for their flight as usual. They can then elect to get a test before their flight. The passenger has to be on a domestic flight, and be between 19 and 80 years old. If they want a test, the passenger then goes back outside to the testing facility. There, a researcher will take either a nasal swab or an oral rinse. The passenger then goes back inside to wait for the results, which usually come within 15 or 20 minutes. Tests are available Monday to Friday before noon.

If the passenger is negative, they can go through security and on their way.

If, however, the test is positive, the passenger will be denied boarding and Westjet will either cancel their booking or rebook them on a future flight. The person will be sent home to quarantine. They will still need a Health Canada-approved test to confirm the diagnosis.

“With just three simple steps, we encourage eligible guests to consider taking part while contributing to findings that may influence travel and public health in the future.” said Billy Nolen, Westjet’s Vice-President of Safety, Security, and Quality.

Testing expansion

pre-flight COVID testing
A lab technician conducts a COVID test (photo: Vancouver Airport Authority).

The Vancouver study will try different methods of testing passengers at the airport.

“Our study will inform whether a rapid screening program is a practical and effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 amongst travellers,” said Dr. Marc Romney. He and Dr. Don Sin are leading the study on behalf of UBC and Providence Health Care.

The launch of pre-flight testing at Vancouver was not the only development Friday. Air Canada also announced it would work with Shopper’s Drug Mart on pre-flight COVID testing.

Tests will be available to Air Canada passengers flying to areas that require negative pre-flight COVID tests. Hawaii recently announced the state would open its islands to Canadians if they test negative within 72 hours of departure. Otherwise, passengers will have to quarantine on arrival.

Test results are usually available within 24 – 48 hours, the airline said. They are available in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Westjet has set up a similar arrangement with Dynalife Medical Labs in Alberta.

Shoppers has not said how much tests will cost. But a clinic at Vancouver International charges $300 per passenger for Hawaii-approved tests. Provinces do not pay for tests for travel.

‘More eggs in more baskets’

Airlines and airports are putting more pressure on governments to allow testing as a substitute for quarantines. Currently, most people arriving from outside Canada have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival. A testing programme for international passengers in Alberta has shortened that wait to just a few days.

“We believe that testing is one of the keys to protecting employees and customers, and an important step to safely reopen travel around the world, easing travel restrictions by providing alternative testing solutions in managing risk,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s Chief Medical Officer.

This week, Gander International added its voice to the chorus. “We need more eggs in more baskets,” the airport tweeted.

Under rules adopted for the pandemic, Newfoundland and Labrador bans most Canadians from the province. It makes exceptions for people from Atlantic Canada, some workers, and others in extenuating circumstances. But almost everyone arriving in the province must quarantine for two weeks.

The rules have contributed to a decimation of air traffic. What’s worse, Statistics Canada reported this week that COVID’s second wave was threatening what little recovery the industry was experiencing.

Long, rough road ahead

“Our industry champions the layered approach to testing used around the world,” the airport said in an unusually scathing tweet Friday. “Testing is used to reduce quarantine times and limit social and economic damage. Unfortunately, it’s not a shared priority for our Province. Long, rough road ahead to mass vaccination.”

A study conducted by McMaster Health Labs suggested testing on arrival could effectively help prevent the spread of COVID. Researchers tested more than 8,600 international passengers arriving in Toronto. In preliminary results reported November 18, researchers found all but five cases of COVID within a week of arrival. Researchers expect to release final results early in the new year.

That testing is part of what those in the industry calls a ‘layered approach.’ Other layers include extensive cleaning and sanitizing, and denying boarding to anyone with COVID symptoms.

“We are committed to doing our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19, while instilling confidence in those who need to travel,” said Vancouver Airport’s Tamara Vrooman, the President and Chief Executive Officer.

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Categories: Vancouver, Westjet