COVID-19 landing in Canada despite pre-flight testing

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test become mandatory upon arrival in Toronto
Passengers arrive at Toronto's Pearson airport after mandatory coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing took effect for international arrivals in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada February 1, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

March 31 (Reuters) - More than 1,000 air passengers arrived in Canada infected with COVID-19 over a recent four-week period despite obligatory pre-departure testing, according to federal data that cast doubt on any broad easing of restrictions before the summer travel season.

Canada began testing international arrivals in February, requiring air travelers to spend up to three days in hotel quarantine at their own expense until results come back, a measure criticized by airlines hit hard by the pandemic. People who test negative can finish a 14-day quarantine at home.

The federal policy was meant to deter people from going abroad during the traditional spring holiday season, and to screen for more contagious coronavirus variants, health officials said.

Canada's air arrival positivity rate of 1.5% over four weeks from Feb 22 to March 25 is higher than those recorded by some other countries doing similar testing at airports.

Germany's Frankfurt airport recorded a 0.4% positive test rate from 2,700 travelers over a four-week period this year, according to testing company Centogene NV (39K.MU).

Canadian government data showed many international flights this year had passengers carrying the virus. From Feb 22 to March 25, of 70,819 travelers tested upon arrival, 1,094 were positive.

The travel-related cases suggest the government will not ease its arrival quarantine policy any time soon, even as airlines hope increased testing and vaccinations will lead to improved business.

Canada’s travel restrictions are among the world’s toughest, with non-essential foreigners typically denied entry and citizens returning from abroad mandated to quarantine.

"This (testing data) indicates that maintaining strong border measures to protect Canadians is more important than ever," said Cole Davidson, a spokesman for Canada's health minister.

Air Canada (AC.TO) has said it expects some easing in restrictions by summer, while WestJet Airlines has asked Canada to transition away from what was billed as a temporary hotel quarantine requirement by May 1.

The hotel quarantine rule for air travelers is encouraging Canadians to fly to U.S. border towns and drive across the border, a Westjet official said. Such travelers are also tested but can quarantine for 14 days anywhere they choose.

Air travel, which is at around 10% of pre-pandemic levels, "is not responsible for the current situation we're in," Andy Gibbons, WestJet's director for government relations, said of surging COVID-19 cases in Canada.

Canada would not say how long the arrival testing and hotel quarantine policy will be in place.

Testing upon arrival "can help to identify people with COVID-19 who may have been exposed to the virus after their pre-arrival test, as well as those who may not have been detectable at the time their pre-arrival sample was taken," Davidson said.

Canada has reported 982,116 total coronavirus cases and 22,959 COVID-19 deaths.

Health officials warn that the concerning new coronavirus variants are increasing rapidly in several parts of Canada. Ontario, the most populous province, said on Thursday it would enter a third lockdown on Saturday. L1N2LU1GY

"For the moment, we don't think that this is the time to soften the mandatory quarantine for travelers," said Marjaurie Côté-Boileau, a spokeswoman for Quebec's health minister.

Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Anna Mehler-Paperny in Toronto; Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Steve Scherer and Bill Berkrot

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Thomson Reuters

Toronto-based correspondent covering among other topics migration and health.