Canada's COVID-19 pilot program for travellers could be 'falsely reassuring,' infectious disease expert says

Elisabetta Bianchini
·9 min read
COVID-19 in Canada
COVID-19 in Canada

Travel-loving Canadians may be pleased that governments are collaborating to test out the possibility of shortening the quarantine requirement when returning to Canada, but health experts are still cautious about the prospect of more international travel.

“Travel companies, airline companies, they're really suffering right now and I don't want to make light of that,” infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners, Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told Yahoo Canada. “I think that at least for the next little bit, people should be avoiding non-essential travel still.”

Quarantine or no quarantine? Alberta’s pilot travel program may be flawed, doctor says

Last week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the provincial government and the Government of Canada are launching a pilot program to test an alternative to the 14-day quarantine measure currently in place across the country.

Beginning Nov. 2, travellers returning to Canada at the Calgary International Airport or the Coutts land border will be able to volunteer to receive a COVID-19 test upon entry. When the test comes back negative, they no longer need to quarantine, “so long as they commit to getting a second test on day six or seven after arrival, at a community pharmacy participating in the pilot program.”

Alberta’s Ministry of Health confirmed to Yahoo Canada that travellers who volunteer to participate in this program will undergo the same NP swab (nasopharyngeal swab) and PCR test that has been used since the beginning of the pandemic, but the samples will just be processed “faster.”

It’s anticipated that travellers will receive their test results in two days and will be expected to wear a mask in public places, and avoid visiting “high-risk groups,” with the promise of daily symptom checks as well.

Although the prospect of shortening the quarantine period is possible, it’s the type of test that is being used in this pilot program that is questionable factor for Dr. Chakrabarti.

“The kind of typical test that they use, if it's negative, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not going to develop COVID in the next couple of days...it’s just falsely reassuring,” Dr. Chakrabarti explained. “You can become contagious the next day, so I don't understand how they would use a single test to...take you out of quarantine.”

But the infectious disease specialist indicated there could be a way to effectively execute this concept with a different testing method, ideally a saliva rapid test (different than mouth rinse and gargle sample collection method being offered to children in British Columbia, which are then sent to a lab for the same processing procedure as the nasal swab samples).

“There are potential tests where you can do it on a regular basis,...[for] a couple of days, and it gives you an idea, maybe you're not contagious Monday, but you could be contagious Tuesday,” Dr. Chakrabarti explained. “That's actually what we care more about, if you're COVID positive the big thing we care about on the public health level is if you're contagious.”

“So I could see this thing working if they have one of those rapid tests and you do them daily for seven days. But that's not what the case is, so I would say right now that I think it needs some work before this could be rolled out safely.”

Pilot program is ‘the lifeline our airport our airline partners need’

While Canadians are still urged to avoid all non-essential travel, the industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors of the global pandemic.

Travel expert Barry Choi told Yahoo Canada he is “surprised” it took this long for a federally supported pilot to be rolled out.

“I'm surprised that these kind of tests, programs...haven't been introduced already,” Choi said. “We've already seen them in other parts of the world, Europe, Asia, and they've had some great success stories, so it's kind of shocking that Canada hasn't introduced anything at all, especially considering that airlines had been pushing them for a while.”

Airport authorities and airlines were also quick to support this pilot program, as the travel sector continues to try to sustain operations during the pandemic.

“YYC Calgary International Airport is proud to be the first and only airport in Canada to have a government-approved testing pilot for arriving international passengers—which we hope will lead to reducing and one day eliminating the current 14-day self-isolation requirements,” Bob Sartor, President & CEO of the Calgary Airport Authority said in a statement. “This innovative testing is the lifeline our airport and airline partners need to instill confidence in air travel.”

“This announcement is welcomed by WestJet and I applaud and thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Jason Kenney for taking this important step in providing peace of mind to anxious travellers," a statement from Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO reads. “We have been asking for a science-based approach based on multiple layers of testing to help safely ease the quarantine requirements.”

Air Canada conducts its own COVID-19 experiment

Air Canada has been particularly vocal about implementing a testing method that could replace or shorten the 14-day quarantine measure in Canada. Last month, the airline partnered with McMaster HealthLabs and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority for a study to explore the effectiveness of this alternative to the quarantine requirement.

On Oct. 1, Air Canada revealed that of the tests conducted since Sept. 3, more than 99 per cent of travellers who volunteered for the program tested negative for COVID-19. Of the positive cases, more than 80 per cent were detected at the initial test, with the remaining cases identified on the Day 7 test.

“The preliminary results suggest a shorter, test-based strategy may be an available and safe alternative to the 14-day quarantine,” Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada's chief medical officer said in a statement.

The airline has now placed an order for 25,000 Abbott's ID NOW COVID-19 rapid response tests for voluntary testing, which can test for COVID-19 through a nasal swab sample, in 13 minutes.

“We believe testing will be key to protecting employees and customers until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” Dr. Chung’s statement reads.

On Oct. 30, the Canadian government announce it will invest $2.5 million into this study between Air Canada, McMaster HealthLabs and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, we introduced strong measures at the borders to keep Canadians safe,” a statement from Minister of Health Patty Hajdu reads. “We've relied on data and evidence to respond to COVID-19, and as we gradually restart our economy, the findings of this study are vital to understand how best to protect the health of Canadians and the Canadian economy.”

People line up and check in for an international flight at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.  (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
People line up and check in for an international flight at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Will this be enough to get people travelling internationally again?

Another question that needs to be answered is whether this pilot program and the prospect of reducing the quarantine time for travellers will actually be enough to entice people to travel internationally. Choi believes the existing measure is certainly a significant factor for anyone interested in travelling.

“You tell anyone that you’ve got to stay at home for 14 days, can't see family or anything like that, they're definitely going to think twice before leaving Canada or even the province,” he said. “For a personal example, I was supposed to have a business trip to go to Calgary but my daycare said if I leave the province, I have to pull my daughter out for 14 days, I'm just not going to do it if I don't have to.”

Although the 14-day quarantine period may be a significant deterrent for people who have a strong itch to get back to travelling, Choi doesn’t necessarily think that reducing this measure alone will result in Canadians sprinting back to the travel industry.

“I don't think [these tests] will completely kickstart the industry all over again,” Choi said. “I think people are going to be cautious, people are still very worried about the virus, but it's another step that we can use to get the travel industry going.”

Flight search trends from Canadian users of Kayak (KAYAK)
Flight search trends from Canadian users of Kayak (KAYAK)

According to flight search trends from Canadian Kayak users, interest in looking for international travel possibilities has been consistently low since late March, but there has been a bit more of an increase in domestic travel searches.

Week by week changes in search trends by Canadians on Kayak. (KAYAK)
Week by week changes in search trends by Canadians on Kayak. (KAYAK)

For people who are searching for flights on a week-over-week basis, for the week of Oct. 25, search interest by Canadians for international destinations have seen the largest increases, with London up 45 per cent, Cancun, Mexico up 29 per cent and Manila up 21 per cent.

An Expedia survey of 1,000 respondents between Sept. 23 and Sept. 25 found that it took Canadians an average of 35 days before they started researching or “dreaming” about their next trip. One in five respondents indicated they plan to reschedule a trip they had to cancel this year.

Check in Kiosks are covered in plastic at the domestic check in, at Vancouver International Airport, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Airlines in Canada and around the world are suffering financially due to the lack of travel and travel bans due to COVID-19. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
Check in Kiosks are covered in plastic at the domestic check in, at Vancouver International Airport, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Airlines in Canada and around the world are suffering financially due to the lack of travel and travel bans due to COVID-19. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Could this be rolled out to other cities, with larger airports?

Following the announcement of this program in Alberta, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was quick to say he would be interested in implemented this program in the province, specifically the Toronto airport, if there is success in Alberta.

But Toronto Pearson International Airport sees significantly more international flights than the Calgary airport, so if this is brought to other travel hubs in Canada, more consideration may need to be given to where travellers are returning from and the COVID-19 situation in that location.

“A plane that's returning from India [has] much more risk of having COVID [positive] people on the plane than one returning from say New Zealand,” Dr. Chakrabarti explained.

That being said, this kind of COVID-19 testing could also be helpful in detecting these positive travel-related cases quickly.

“It's smart to pilot it in Alberta as the first step, and try to figure out what would make sense across Canada because we do live in a very large country and there's a lot of major airports that we need to consider,” Choi said.