Winnipeg Airports Authority pushes for on-site COVID-19 testing

The Winnipeg Airports Authority is calling for on-site COVID-19 testing that could potentially reduce the amount of time people spend in isolation after travel.

The authority says travellers are unfairly being ordered into 14 days of self-isolation despite the fact only one per cent of COVID cases in the province have come from travel.

But the province is sticking with public health messaging that discourages any non-essential travel and urges people to stay home, and won’t say whether the request will be granted.

The authority is in talks with the federal and provincial governments about offering rapid screening or the more accurate PCR test at the city’s international airport.

Provincial data shows just one per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Manitoba were from someone who travelled outside of Canada. 

“We don’t want travel to pose a risk to the community. We know right now that the evidence is telling us that it doesn’t. The act of travel itself is incredibly safe,” said Tyler MacAfee, the VP of communications and government relations for the airports authority.

Winnipeg Airports Authority vice president Tyler MacAfee, seen above in a file photo, says travellers are being forced to miss a lot of things while in isolation for 14 days. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The data marks a stark contrast to initial warnings back in the spring, when the biggest risk to the province, which had almost no cases, was the importation of the virus from travel.

A provincial public health order requires most travellers coming into Manitoba from anywhere but Western Canada and northwestern Ontario to self-isolate for 14 days.

A similar but more tightly-enforced federal requirement exists for international travellers even though the majority entering Canada have been exempt from isolating.

MacAfee said based on data now available, he doesn’t think it’s fair travellers are still ordered to isolate. 

“Ninety-nine per cent of the people who are traveling are negative for COVID so they’re being forced out of the economy, forced out of everything for 14 days unnecessarily because they’re not posing that risk.”

Provincial data shows that just 218 of 22,397 COVID-cases so far were from travel outside of Canada. And an interim report from last month by McMaster Health Labs found 99 per cent of travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport who took part in a voluntary study tested negative for COVID-19. 

Alberta testing at airport, land crossing

The Alberta government is offering international travellers a free COVID-19 test upon arrival at the Calgary International Airport or at the Coutts land border crossing. Travellers must self-isolate until a negative result comes back.

If the test is negative, the traveller can end their isolation period early as long as they commit to taking another test within six or seven days of coming into Alberta and complete daily symptom reports. 

So far the Alberta government says 1.15 per cent of tests have come back positive in the program.

‘Playing an odds game’

University of Alberta infectious diseases expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger says airport testing programs have benefits but are not foolproof. 

“All of the travel-related testing I think is really playing an odds game,” she said in an interview from Edmonton.

University of Alberta infectious diseases expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger says the focus in Canada right now is on community-based transmission, not cases from travel, unlike at the start of the pandemic. She stresses more attention may need to be put on travel with new variants. (CBC)

“We know that if you test negative, your odds of being currently infectious is somewhat diminished. But we also know that someone who’s incubating infection can actually go from negative to positive at any time prior to them developing symptoms.”

“And so on a population basis, doing airport-based screening improves your odds in terms of preventing a lot of people with transmittable infection being out and about.”  

New variant a concern: doc

Saxinger says increased attention may need to be given to travel again with the new variant of COVID-19 that is believed to spread more quickly and easily but so far, has not shown to be more deadly.

“If we do see that there’s variants that are virus variants that are more transmissible or if new ones arise that are problematic in other ways, then you really do have to start looking at travel very closely again.”  

A press secretary for the premier and health minister’s offices didn’t say whether the province would support an on-site testing program at the airport and instead deferred questions to public health.

A passenger waits at the WestJet end of the Calgary airport in March. Earlier this month, the Alberta government said 14,382 travellers had taken tests in a pilot project for international travellers at the Calgary airport. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“Public health continues to monitor trends and technology and is exploring all options to protect the public. It is important that travel be limited to essential trips and that travellers follow all isolation requirements,” a public health department spokesperson said.

MacAfee hopes the data is enough for the government to consider allowing a program similar to the one in Alberta to be brought to Winnipeg. 

The airport is down to about 2,000 passengers on a busy day right now compared with 17,000 this time last year. 

“Early on, this was really important to flatten the curve and get an understanding of the virus,” MacAfee said. “But we’re 10 months into this now, and I think it’s important that we continue to follow where our understanding and evidence is …and adapt our policies accordingly.”

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