Nearly 2,000 travellers entering Canada by land or air through Alberta have participated in a COVID-19 testing pilot since it launched earlier this month — and some early results have emerged.
The pilot program, a partnership between Alberta and the federal government, allows eligible international travellers to take a COVID-19 test at one of two border crossings in the province — the Calgary International Airport and the Coutts land border crossing.
Should tests come back negative, travellers can leave quarantine as long as they remain in Alberta for the first 14 days. They must also get a second test six or seven days after arrival at a participating community pharmacy.
"I've just been living the worry-free lifestyle," said Jordan Halas, who was one of the first passengers to take part in the pilot. "It's been a lot better than living in isolation for two weeks."
Travellers who choose not to participate in the pilot still have to abide by the normal 14-day quarantine, and those who do participate in the pilot may be ticketed should they fail to respect the pilot's public health requirements.
Halas said he received his first test results back just under 36 hours after doing the test. He then left his place of quarantine and returned to his family on Nov. 4.
He took his follow-up test on Nov. 8, receiving a negative result around 36 hours after that.
"It gives you some flexibility, so you can weigh the risk and reward of travel," Halas said.
Pilot is off to successful start, province says
Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said that as of Monday, 1,993 participants had enrolled in the pilot between both the Calgary airport and the Coutts land border crossing.
"The border pilot is off to a successful start," McMillan said in an email. "We continue to work to refine processes in co-operation with our partners, and all participating travellers are being closely monitored."
The project will run for up to 26 weeks or until 52,000 participants are enrolled, whichever comes first.
McMillan said the province intends to add the project to the Edmonton International Airport early in 2021.
WATCH | How Alberta's border pilot can reduce the self-isolation period to about 48 hours:
The pilot is available for foreign nationals not restricted from entering the country and Canadian citizens or permanent residents currently allowed entry into Canada, provided they do not exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.
When asked if anyone had tested positive for COVID-19 on the first or second tests, McMillan said a detailed update would be provided when the pilot is further along.
A spokesperson with Calgary-based airline WestJet said the pilot was serving as an "important step" to getting the industry back on its feet.
"Following the announcement of the trial, we saw bookings higher than cancellations," said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email.
"While bookings are looking encouraging — approximately double digit per cent increases — it is still early days and these remain difficult times as we are still at levels that see more than 135 of the 181 aircraft in our fleet parked."
Traveller says tests come as a relief
Coming home to Calgary from a trip to Mexico, Colin Dougan said his tests at the airport only took a few minutes to complete.
"It was way easier than I thought, super convenient, very fast," Dougan said. "It's been such a relief. I can't even imagine what it would be like if I was still in quarantine … it's really impacting a lot of decisions that myself and a lot of travellers have to make."
Travel agent Ken Stewart, who arrived in Calgary on Nov. 7 from Cancun, also said he found the process quite simple and easy to complete.
"It's fantastic for the travel industry," he said. "This gives you a little bit more flexibility … we're really hoping it goes across Canada."
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That squares with what Lesley Keyter, the owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary, has heard in recent weeks.
"We're the envy of every other province, because it really is working very, very efficiently," Keyter said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.
Though the testing pilot may be of value for those who need to travel at this time, Keyter said she doesn't think the travel industry will really see a full resurgence until a vaccine is made publicly available.
"We're still in a state of flux with COVID, and I think we should all be very careful and very conservative," she said. "But I'm very positive about the future, I think there's light at the end of the tunnel."