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Why doesn't Canada test all international arrivals for COVID-19 at its airports?

Last Updated Jun 23, 2020 at 10:05 am PDT

The molecular biology laboratory of Cannizzaro Hospital in Catania during the analysis of biological samples to detect the presence of Covid-19 on May 22, 2020 in Catania, Italy. (Photo by Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images)
Summary

Hong Kong tests all international arrivals for COVID-19. Should Canada do the same?

Canada doesn't have the resources to test all international travellers, experts say

NEWS 1130 is working hard to get you the information you need about the COVID-19 pandemic.

When you have questions, NEWS 1130 Gets Answers.

Question:

Patricia asked: “Now that there is testing available for COVID-19, why can’t the U.S./Canada border be open? Tests could be done at [the] airport when [people] return to Canada and self-quarantine. Most Canadians wouldn’t travel yet anyway, so numbers would be low, mainly family. It’s very frustrating to be kept away from loved one when there is now testing available.”

Answer:

International travellers landing at Canadian airports are not subjected to COVID-19 testing, but there are several layers of screening and protocols meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Airlines have been instructed not to allow anyone with COVID-19 symptoms – such as fever and cough – at the point of origin.
Arriving passengers are screened by Canada Border Services Agency officers for symptoms.
All international arrivals in B.C. have to present a self-isolation plan showing how they will self isolate for the 14 days. Those without a plan may be provided accommodation for 14 days.

But there is no widespread testing being done at Canadian airports.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, is testing all asymptomatic travellers arriving at its airport from abroad. After being tested, people must wait at the airport for their test results to come in. If arriving in the afternoon or evening, travellers may be taken to a hotel and wait overnight before being cleared to self isolate at their destination for 14 days.

NEWS 1130 asked five COVID-19 experts about the feasibility and advisability of introducing such a plan in Canada, none of whom endorsed the idea outright.

“While this is not a bad idea, there are some problems in its implementation,” said Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, a professor at UBC’s school of population and public health.

He said Canada would have to reallocate testing slated for use elsewhere to airports.

“Also, Canada sees about 20 million tourists a years, not to mention people who come and go for work or business, so that would be a lot of extra testing,” Hoption Cann said.

He also said Canada’s testing turnaround time would likely still be two to four days, posing a challenge for managing people during that time.

“So while it is not a bad idea, it could be difficult to put into practice,” Hoption Cann said.

Dr. David White, professor of family and community medicine at he University of Toronto, said, “the Hong Kong approach is simply not feasible in Canada.”

UBC medical geographer Ken Denike noted a rapid testing program was set up in Vancouver for health-care workers in the early days of the pandemic and could be duplicated at the airport, “but somebody would have to pick up the cost.”

Michael Curry, UBC professor of emergency medicine, said testing asymptomatic could return false negatives because people early on in the infection may not shed virus particles.

UBC medical geographer Tom Koch said: “The question is what testing would be done on incoming passengers if one wished to both promote international travel and guard against new viral introductions.”

He said temperature checks can miss asymptomatic patients and give false positives to people with heightened temperatures for non-coronavirus reasons.

“So I don’t think a reliable [screening] method is available. Nasal swabs take too long,” he said.

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