The Northwest Territories has some of the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions in Canada, but some residents believe certain flights offer a loophole whereby travellers could expose others to the virus.
Anyone entering the territory is required to self-isolate for 14 days in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, or Inuvik, save for a few exceptions. As of October 10, more than 21,000 mandatory self-isolation plans had been submitted to the territorial government.
The territory says this is the best way to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In particular, isolation in one of four larger municipalities is designed to ensure the virus does not reach smaller communities with limited resources.
“Self-isolation is the frontline of our Covid-19 defence. If you’re required to self-isolate, it is very important to follow your self-isolation plan,” the territory said in a September news release.
However, it is possible for people travelling into the NWT from the south to share the same flight with those who never left the territory and are simply travelling within it.
The airline Canadian North, for example, operates scheduled flights from Edmonton to Inuvik that include stops in Yellowknife and Norman Wells, where local passengers can board.
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the NWT’s chief public health officer, said the territory was not concerned about the potential such flights create for the transmission of Covid-19.
“We are not interested in disrupting people’s lives more than necessary, and we do not believe there is any reason to require more people to isolate away from their homes,” Westwick said.
He noted the federal agency Transport Canada currently orders anyone with symptoms of Covid-19 not to board a plane. All air passengers within Canada must wear non-medical masks covering their face and nose during flights.
Transport Canada also requires that passengers undergo temperature checks before boarding flights in larger airports like Edmonton, which is a key point of entry to the NWT. Passengers with a temperature of 38C or higher are not allowed to travel for 14 days.
“These precautions work together to protect all of us when we participate in air travel,” said Westwick by email.
“There will never be no risk, but everyone is taking the right steps to mitigate it as much as possible.
“Residents should feel safe because the right precautions are being taken.”
‘Entirely unreasonable’ to interrupt flights
Instead of forcing all passengers on such a flight to isolate in Yellowknife, Westwick said the territory was focusing on other restrictions: limits on gatherings, two-week periods of isolation, and rules governing how various activities are carried out.
For months, the territory has worked to gradually move away from its early Covid-19 messaging about border closures. Increasingly, spokespeople take pains to point out how open the NWT’s borders actually are, referencing the hundreds of people who arrive in the territory each week while complying with travel restrictions.
“Air travel is essential in the North and it would be entirely unreasonable to require people who are returning to Inuvik from travel to get off the plane and isolate in Yellowknife,” Westwick wrote.
Isolation centres are currently expected to account for $35.8 million in territorial government spending between 2020 and 2023. The four centres represent the most expensive line item in the territory’s pandemic response, and the NWT government is reluctant to find any reason for more people to need them.
A Canadian North spokesperson said the airline follows Transport Canada and other government regulations, including requiring face coverings on flights. Only passengers who meet those travel regulations are allowed to board flights headed for the NWT, Nunavut, or Nunavik.
What is the risk of getting Covid-19 on a flight?
Earlier this month, a US Department of Defense and United Airlines study – reported by Forbes and the Washington Post, among others – concluded passengers wearing masks faced minimal risk of contracting Covid-19 on packed flights.
Due to “aggressive” air filtration and circulation systems, the study found, a passenger would – on average – need to spend some 54 hours sitting next to someone with the virus to be exposed to an “infectious dose” of the virus.
According to an International Air Transport Association news release on October 8, 44 cases of Covid-19 are believed to have been transmitted on flights to date, among 1.2 billion passengers travelling worldwide. (The association, which has a vested interest in seeing passengers return to airlines’ planes, said that figure was “extremely reassuring.”)
In September, CTV reported that nearly 1,000 Canadian flights had carried at least one passenger with Covid-19: 370 domestic flights and just under 600 international.
In August, federal transport minister Marc Garneau said the Liberal government was not aware of any cases of passenger-to-passenger transmission on a flight to or from Canada.
So far, there has been no confirmed instance of an NWT resident receiving Covid-19 from a fellow passenger on a plane.
The individual who arrived in Inuvik earlier this month and subsequently received a presumptive positive Covid-19 test had been travelling by car.