Ontario premier ups the ante trying to prevent people infected with a new strain of coronavirus from reaching Canada
Ottawa doubles down on border closures and quarantines as a way to stop the virus’ spread.
Update Dec. 31/2020: Canada is set to implement pre-flight testing Starting January 7, 2021.
The Premier of Ontario is calling for pre-flight testing of Canada-bound passengers as a way to keep a new strain of COVID-19 out of the country. The mutation caused Canada to join dozens of other countries in banning flights from the United Kingdom until at least Wednesday night.
“We have over 60,000 international passengers coming into Pearson Airport every week with minimal checks,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a news conference Tuesday. “Without further action by our federal government at our borders, we remain at extreme risk right now.”
Federal officials say 1.8% of all COVID cases in Canada can be traced to international travel. That’s higher than the rate a McMaster University study detected among passengers arriving at Toronto Pearson. Final results of the study – funded by Air Canada and Pearson Airport – are expected in the coming weeks.
“We hear every week about dozens of flights coming in unchecked and bringing in COVID with them,” said Ford.
Since December 8, a federal registry lists 104 international flights arrived in Canada where a passenger later tested positive for COVID. Most of those planes, 35, landed in Toronto. However, almost as many – 34 – arrived in Calgary.
Ford said he’s ready to implement a provincial test for international passengers on arrival if Ottawa doesn’t get on board.
“I’ve directed our officials to begin preparing infrastructure necessary for testing at our airports,” he said. “Today, I’m also calling on the federal government to immediately implement a requirement for pre-departure tests for anyone seeking entry into our country.”
Pre-flight testing trial
Dozens of countries require passengers to show a negative test within 72 hours of entering. These generally consist of PCR tests, considered the gold standard around the world. Hawaii recently opened its borders to Canadians if they test negative for COVID-19. Tests at a private pharmacy chain cost $200, plus tax.
The challenge is, pre-flight testing is not yet proven in Canada. In fact, it’s still in its infancy. Vancouver International and Westjet have partnered with the University of British Columbia on Canada’s only pre-flght COVID trial. They are using the somewhat less reliable rapid test, which produces results within 15 minutes. Researchers are examining how effective the tests are and whether they work in an airport environment.
Hi @robmarles3 We welcome the opportunity to implement a testing program that focuses on safe travel & reduced risk. We don’t have such a program at this time, but continue to work with government to advance new solutions to protect the airport and our communities.— Toronto Pearson (@TorontoPearson) December 23, 2020
“We are analyzing the results,” said Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer. In particular, the government is looking at technical aspects, such as the test’s sensitivity and rate of false positives.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu called COVID tests a point in time.
“We could test everybody at the border and if we didn’t have the quarantine, we would still lose a number of cases,” she said at a news conference Tuesday. “Because of course, if we don’t test people at the right time in their illness, in fact the test could be negative.” That means people could test negative, enter the country, and spread COVID.
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Sticking to the tried and true
So, the federal government is sticking to policies adopted at the pandemic’s outset: avoid non-essential travel, close the borders to most non-Canadians, and quarantines for most people entering the country.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair called Canada’s border policies “among the strongest and most rigorous in the world. We are one of the few countries in the world that restricts all non-essential travel from international destinations into Canada,” he said.
One of the few exceptions is in Alberta, where the provincial government is holding out hope for a shortened quarantine. Although this testing is done on arrival, not pre-flight. Passengers arriving from other countries can agree to a COVID test at the airport. Results usually come back within two or three days. If they come back negative, the passenger can leave quarantine, provided they get another test a few days later.
“We’re not going to grab people on their way off the airplane and stick a swab down their nose. They have to voluntarily participate,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday. “And the way to incentivize that is to offer a period of reduced self-isolation.”
“The Alberta pilot has been an extremely good collaboration,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. “And we will be examining the sequence from that pilot right now. And that will give us more information about the next steps that we can take in terms of the testing of travellers.”
It could also provide an early warning of new COVID strains entering the country. Tam said it may be possible to do genetic sequencing on COVID tests from people who have travelled. “We need to increase scrutiny,” she said.
Kenney encouraged the federal government to expand the Alberta pilot to other airports across the country.
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