Ottawa is still only randomly testing fully vaccinated international travellers upon arrival, despite announcing almost six weeks ago that all travellers entering Canada from outside the U.S. would imminently be required to take a COVID-19 molecular test upon arrival.
"We have full confidence that this is going to unroll quickly over the next few days," said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos at a news conference on Nov. 30.
At the time, the federal government said it devised the new testing policy to help stop the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. It suggested that all vaccinated travellers entering from the U.S. could also face mandatory arrival testing — if the Omicron variant started to surge in the United States.
But more than 30 days later, all fully vaccinated travellers to Canada still only have to take an arrival test if they're randomly selected.
Meanwhile, the Omicron variant has spread across the globe including in the U.S., and is infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. In Canada, the surge has sparked new lockdowns and labour shortages, and is straining the healthcare system.
Marcela Hart of Ottawa said she was surprised when she and her husband — both fully vaccinated — weren't selected for an arrival test after flying to Toronto from Mexico on Dec. 26.
"We were just asked a few questions of where we had been, what we were doing and off we went," said Hart who had travelled to Mexico with her husband and three-year-old son to visit family.
"We did have an unvaccinated child with us. We just kind of assumed we would be — almost — a target to get tested," she said.
On Aug. 9, the government mandated that all unvaccinated recreational travellers over the age of four take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, and that fully vaccinated travellers — including from the U.S. — take one if randomly selected.
The tests are in addition to the pre-departure test all travellers must undergo before leaving for Canada.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) did not initially address questions about why the government is taking so long to shift to testing all non-U.S. foreign arrivals.
However, following the publication of this story, PHAC spokesperson André Gagnon told CBC News that the government has ramped up arrival testing, but is still only doing random tests at this time due to "the high volume of travellers and limited infrastructure in airports.
"In some instances we resorted to pausing mandatory testing as a means to alleviate the public health risk associated with congregating a large number of people in the airport," he wrote in an email on Friday.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Airports Council — which represents many of the country's airports — told CBC News it's simply not feasible to test all incoming passengers in the arrival halls of the country's largest airports.
"We're all collectively struggling to understand how we can operationalize this in a way that will keep travellers flowing, keep everybody safe and avoid those log jams at airports," said Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Airports Council.
Gagnon said that as of Dec. 21, the government has increased testing capacity to 26,000 arrival tests daily at airports.
On average, 45,000 air passengers entered Canada daily between Dec. 20-26, according to the latest data from the Canada Border Services Agency.
According to the most recent government data, between Dec. 12 and Dec.18, 656 fully vaccinated international travellers tested positive after being randomly selected for arrival testing. While the overall positivity rate is low at close to one per cent, it has climbed from the previous week. The government warns the data is incomplete as some test results have yet to be tallied.
Ideally, all travellers should be tested upon arrival and that rule should have taken effect long before Omicron spread across Canada, said Julianne Piper, a research fellow and project coordinator with the Pandemics & Borders research project at Simon Fraser University.
"Now we're at a point where even domestically, testing and contact tracing capacities are overwhelmed," said Piper. "What we're seeing is challenges in implementing [arrival testing] after a decision was made, unfortunately, a little bit too late to have a significant impact on the Omicron variant in Canada."
U.S. travellers exempt from quarantine
Gagnon said Canada will continue to only randomly test vaccinated travellers entering from the U.S., but did not explain why.
Vaccinated travellers randomly selected for arrival testing must quarantine while waiting for their test results. However, according to the government's website, travellers entering from the U.S. randomly selected for a test are exempt from the quarantine rule.
Gagnon also did not address questions about why tested travellers from the U.S. get to skip quarantine at a time when the Omicron variant has spread swiftly across that country. On Monday, the U.S. set a global record of more one million new COVID-19 infections.
Piper said that travel measures are most effective when they apply to everyone.
"A virus doesn't distinguish between … someone who's coming from the US versus some country in another part of the world," she said. "There's no country that's been unaffected by this."