A Yellowknife mom whose son recently travelled home from overseas says Covid-19 testing rules at the Canadian border are unclear and could cause chaos at airports.
Roxane Poulin’s 17-year-old son returned from England, where he attends school, earlier this month. Poulin and son worked hard to have paperwork and tests completed ahead of time.
She says the problem lay in trying to prepare for what would happen if her son was tested for Covid-19 at Calgary Airport.
Poulin checked the federal government’s website and spoke to several representatives by phone, but could not get clear answers to questions like how long test results would take and where her son would be allowed to quarantine.
“It’s just been unbelievably stressful,” Poulin said ahead of her son’s arrival on December 15.
“Everybody’s vaccinated in my family. We’ve done all the right things … All I wanted was some clear answers and a bit of guidance.”
Under federal rules, fully vaccinated travellers planning to enter Canada from abroad are required to take a pre-entry Covid-19 test within 72 hours of their departure, with a small number of exceptions.
Earlier this month, the Canadian government said it was also ramping up random testing at the Canadian border for international travellers from countries other than the US, with the aim of testing all incoming travellers at an unspecified future date.
The Public Health Agency of Canada told Cabin Radio 23,000 tests would be required per day across Canada in order to test all international air travellers. As of December 9, Canada had a testing capacity of 17,000 tests per day. By December 10, half of international travellers entering Canada were being selected for on-arrival testing.
While the NWT government’s guidance remains to avoid any unnecessary travel, plenty of NWT residents like Poulin’s son have reason to consider their travel essential.
So what happens if you are returning from abroad and are among those selected for a test?
Poulin said it was initially unclear, should that happen to her son, whether he would be allowed to isolate in Yellowknife while awaiting results – or if he would have to stay in Calgary.
That made planning a connecting flight or quarantine difficult, she said.
According to Poulin, a federal representative eventually said her son could stay at a designated Calgary isolation facility if his plan to isolate in Yellowknife was rejected. But the representative could not tell her exactly where or for how long.
“These questions should have been anticipated,” Poulin said of the federal government’s Covid-19 screening measures.
Ulike the NWT government, which approves self-isolation plans before travellers arrive in the territory, federal border agents only determine whether a traveller’s quarantine plan is suitable once they arrive at the border.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said it does not disclose the location of designated quarantine facilities due to privacy requirements. It said these facilities are “a last resort” for travellers who have nowhere else to isolate after other options have been exhausted.
The health agency said the wait for test results varies depending on the airport and travel volumes, but the majority of results are issued within 24 to 48 hours. If a test comes back positive for Covid-19, travellers are required to isolate for 10 days.
While the federal government covers the cost of staying at a quarantine facility, including meals and essentials, travellers have to figure out their own travel once they are released. Only a quarantine officer can authorize someone’s release from a designated quarantine facility.
Ultimately, Poulin said, her son was not selected for testing – but she remains concerned about the lack of clarity for other travellers.
Global News recently reported that international travellers have been experiencing longer wait times at Canadian airports due to Covid-19 screening measures like arrival testing.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority told Global delays of two to three hours could be expected at peak times.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, acknowledging the issue, said it was “working diligently to address delays in processing travellers.”
Federal officials cautioned Canadians against international leisure travel on December 15 as the number of Omicron cases rose globally.
Initial research suggests Omicron spreads far more quickly even than the Delta variant, but may result in less severe infection for many people. Even so, governments worldwide have expressed concern that the sheer volume of cases could swamp healthcare systems.