Alberta to pilot COVID-19 testing at border that could shorten quarantine time

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Alberta to pilot COVID-19 testing at border that could shorten quarantine time
Alberta to pilot COVID-19 testing at border that could shorten quarantine time

Travellers entering Canada by land or air through Alberta will soon have the option of being tested for COVID-19 at the border that could shorten quarantine times — in a pilot project that's the first of its kind in Canada, Premier Jason Kenney announced Thursday.

The mandatory quarantine period for returning international travellers will be maintained for now. But the 14-day self-isolation period could be shortened to about 48 hours if a traveller receives a negative COVID-19 test result at one of two border crossings in the province.

"We simply must move forward to develop policies to facilitate safe travel," Kenney said during a news conference Thursday, calling it an important day.

"Though a lot of work lies ahead, we can see a return to normal travel."

Kenney was speaking from his home in Edmonton, where he is in self-isolation after one of his government ministers tested positive for COVID-19 a day earlier. Kenney tested negative Wednesday night but said he'd continue with the isolation period until Oct. 29.

Starting Nov. 2, the new COVID-19 testing option will be offered at the Coutts land border crossing in southern Alberta and the Calgary International Airport.

It was welcome new for Juan Lopez, arriving on a mostly empty plane into Calgary on Thursday. Lopez hasn't seen his wife — who lives in Calgary — since the pandemic began.

"That would be awesome because I am coming from Texas to see my wife, and I have to quarantine for 14 days. And then I have a couple of days, and I have to fly home and go back to work," Lopez said.

All travellers who choose not to participate in the pilot will have to abide by the normal 14-day quarantine.

For the second consecutive day, Alberta has broken two COVID-19 records for both new cases and active cases — reporting 427 new cases and a total of 3,519 active cases of the illness.

The voluntary screening option announced Thursday is a joint pilot project between the Province of Alberta and the Government of Canada.

It will be available for foreign essential workers — truckers, health-care workers and other workers who are exempt from the current federal travel ban — and any Canadian citizens returning to the country through Alberta.

If the test comes back negative, travellers will be allowed to leave their place of quarantine as long as they commit to getting a second test on Day 6 or 7 after arrival, at a community pharmacy participating in the pilot program, the province said.

"Our twin goal here is protecting both lives and livelihoods, and that is especially important in Alberta with the depth of the energy price collapse and its economic impact," Kenney said.

But as federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu pointed out, the pilot program only applies to Canadian residents and foreign nationals who are already allowed to come to Canada. "There are no changes now at the border to be clear," Hajdu said. "And so this is a controlled study with a willing province that has the tools and the capacity to be able to manage the study."

Participants will be closely monitored through daily symptoms checks and be required to follow enhanced preventive health measures, such as wearing masks in public places and avoiding visiting high-risk groups.

Calgary Dr. Joe Vipond likes the idea of using tests to shorten quarantine periods for people flying to Calgary. But he is less excited about the program being used at the Canada-U.S. land border.

"The U.S. rates are ridiculous, and they just aren't putting in safe precautions," he said. "So they are a higher risk population than those that would be arriving from other areas at Calgary."

WATCH | Contact tracing difficulties hampering attempts to control COVID-19:

Could expand to Edmonton

Kenney said if the traveller pilot project goes well, it will be expanded to the airport in Edmonton early in the new year. There was no word on when it could be in place in the rest of Canada.

"This is an announcement that I have been waiting for, and that we have all been waiting for, for months," said Calgary Airport Authority president Bob Sartor.

"This innovative, government-approved, science-based testing trial for international arriving guests is the lifeline that airports and airline partners need to instill confidence in air travel once again."

The pilot was also hailed by Calgary-based airline WestJet.

"Today's announcement is actually the first piece of good news we have received as an airline since February 29th, when I sat on a Sunday afternoon watching our bookings get outstripped by cancellations and eventually fall by up to 95 per cent," said WestJet CEO Ed Sims.

Record-breakers

Alberta hit a new record for the most new cases in a single day on Wednesday, at 406, and repeated that on Thursday with 427 new cases. The previous single-day record for reported new cases was 356 on Oct.18. During the first wave of the pandemic, the province hit 351 new cases on April 23.

The province also broke the record for the most active cases with 3,372 active cases on Wednesday, and again on Thursday with 3,519.

The previous record was set Tuesday, with 3,203.

WATCH | What settings are at a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission?

The government announced that Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard tested positive on Wednesday afternoon and was experiencing mild symptoms.

Apart from Kenney, Transportation Minister Ric McIver and United Conservative Party MLAs Angela Pitt, Peter Guthrie and Nathan Neudorff are also self-isolating because they had interactions with Allard last week, the statement said, though they are not showing symptoms.

Kenney said Thursday that despite the record numbers of COVID-19 cases, the Alberta government has no plans to impose "indiscriminate" restrictions that would shut down the hospitality industry.

He said the province has been "very successful" at maintaining the least-stringent public restrictions while still managing to have some of the best results in the Western world.

Concerns have been growing in recent days surrounding Alberta's south health zone, which has seen its number of active cases jump more than six-fold since the beginning of the month.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, is expected to give the latest provincial COVID-19 update at 3:30 p.m. MT and CBC News will carry it live here.