DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press
Canada’s chief public health officer has expressed some doubts about the continued value of the government’s mandatory COVID-19 testing policy on arrival for international air travelers. At the same time, corporate groups called for an end to politics.
Since Nov. The federal government has stepped up testing of fully vaccinated international air travelers after they land at Canadian airports. The on-arrival testing is in addition to the pre-arrival testing that Canada requires of most people entering the country by air, land or sea.
The policy was put in place to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. But the new version of the virus has now ripped through Canada, test positivity on arrival is very low and labs’ capacity to process test samples has collapsed under the weight of domestic demand.
The policy is intended to apply universally to air travelers arriving in Canada from outside the United States. However, a strain on testing resources, including laboratory capacity, has prevented the government from testing as extensively as intended.
The Canadian Tourism Roundtable, a coalition of groups that includes the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, called for the rule to be scrapped on Friday.
In its statement, the Round Table said stopping “duplicate testing” at the border would free up needed resources. Over the holidays, provinces have drastically restricted access to testing for many people in a bid to ease pressure on labs.
“COVID-19 PCR testing on arrival wastes valuable, scarce testing resources that could be reallocated to protect our frontline workers and support a return to school for children,” the roundtable said.
The group found a possible ally in Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.
“For a surveillance perspective, it’s not really necessary to track every case,” said Dr. Tam at her press conference on Friday. “If the whole world has Omicron, our neighbor has Omicron — for the most part, you’re right that we could take samples for testing instead of maybe testing every single person vaccinated.”
dr Tam said the on-arrival testing policy will be evaluated “over time”.
“It’s a loss of capacity for the entire system,” she added.
Still, she said, the guideline is important because it can help the Public Health Agency of Canada monitor new variants — although she added that it could also be done through “really good random sampling.”
The NDP said in a statement that the government needs to explain how limit testing policies work to stop the spread of new variants. A Conservative statement said the government’s COVID-19 expert panel on testing and screening should provide updated advice.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Taking to social media this week, several doctors questioned the need for on-arrival testing. Among them was Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ontario.
“Vaccinated individuals who receive asymptomatic tests across the border pour water on the dry grass as the house behind them burns,” wrote Dr. Chagla on Thursday. “Canada needs to stop travel testing and focus on local testing. Period.”
Federal government data shows that between November 28 and December 25, on-arrival tests showed an average positivity rate of 1.08 percent among fully vaccinated air travelers. The rate rose in the week before Christmas – the latest period for which data is available – when vaccinated travelers had a test positivity rate of 2.18 percent. Even the higher number is dramatically lower than the positivity numbers reported domestically.
During the final weeks of December and early January, the average test positivity rate in Canada was more than 20 percent. It peaked at just under 30 percent.
Air travel testing rules require passengers to undergo COVID-19 molecular testing within 72 hours of their scheduled flight departure. If a passenger arrives from outside the United States, they are likely to be subject to the on-arrival testing rule. If they are required to take a test upon landing, they must isolate themselves until they get a negative result, or for 14 days, whichever comes first.
Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said the state tests require more than the three-day standard of service to return results. The testing, she said, is causing a significant number of people to cancel trips to Canada because they risk spending their holidays in isolation.
She said the Round Table sent a request to the government to lift testing requirements on arrival more than a week ago, but has received no formal response.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said the rising case numbers and resulting pressure on hospitals was due to community transmission, not international travel.
“The next 100 people to enter your local post office are more likely to be infected than the next 100 people to disembark from an international flight,” he said.