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Airlines seek end to mandatory COVID-19 testing of vaccinated passengers on arrival

Canada’s largest airlines and its busiest airport asked the federal government Monday to drop its rule requiring vaccinated travellers to test on arrival for COVID-19.

A traveller walks past a testing sign at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Dec. 18, 2021. On Monday, Air Canada, WestJet and Pearson airport called for a shift of testing capacity from airports to the community. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Canada’s largest airlines and its busiest airport asked the federal government Monday to drop its rule requiring vaccinated travellers to test on arrival for COVID-19.

In a letter to Ottawa and the Ontario government, Air Canada, WestJet and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport called for a shift of testing capacity from airports to the community.

“As the government has ramped up testing at airports for international arrivals, we have seen frontline workers struggle to get PCR tests, and lab processing capacity decrease significantly,” the letter said, citing schools, hospitals and long-term care homes as particular priorities.

“There is a growing discrepancy between resources allocated to asymptomatic travellers and to those who need it most.”

Argue it’s not the best use of limited resources

As COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks, many provinces have decided to restrict molecular testing to those at a higher risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 or who are in settings where the virus could spread more quickly.

Travellers coming to Canada must present a pre-arrival negative molecular test result for COVID-19. Once they touch down, those coming from any country other than the United States are tested again and must isolate until they get their results. Those coming from the U.S. are tested randomly.

WATCH | Experts question airport testing requirements: 

Experts question utility of airport PCR testing

Medical experts are questioning the usefulness of screening air travellers for COVID-19 using a PCR test, arguing that testing resources could be better targeted elsewhere. 1:59

The airlines and airport say testing international arrivals fails to make the best use of Canada’s limited testing resources, and point to the United Kingdom and Israel as examples to follow — though Israel still requires on-arrival testing of vaccinated passengers, unlike the U.K.

About 1.08 per cent of fully vaccinated air travellers from abroad who were tested between Nov. 28 and Dec. 25 yielded a positive COVID-19 test result, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

While the positivity rate ticked up to just over two per cent in the week before Christmas, the figure falls far short of the national average positivity rate of 28 per cent highlighted by the agency Friday.

Air Canada, WestJet and Pearson want the government to revert to random arrival testing of international travellers and only require isolation for those arriving from overseas if they exhibit symptoms or test positive.

Urged to redeploy testing capacity

The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable also urged the federal government Friday to redeploy its testing capacity and return to random testing for international passengers.

“Many of those tests are being sent to other provinces for processing. And the processing time, which is supposed to have a standard delivery of three days, is exceeding that,” Tourism Industry Association of Canada president Beth Potter said in phone interview.

“Travellers are looking at that and saying, ‘I don’t want to spend seven of my 10-day vacation in a hotel room waiting for test results.”

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, stressed the value of testing as way to monitor new variants.

“Essentially the travellers are kind of sampling the world for us. And for positive cases among travellers we would want to get genomic sequencing done,” she said in a phone interview.

“If there were a new, more transmissible or in any other way worse variants, it is fairly likely that incoming travellers would be the thin edge of the wedge.”

Little value, experts say

But mandatory airport testing adds little “immediate value” to preventing the spread of Omicron, Saxinger added.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday that the policy will be evaluated.

“Tracking every case isn’t really necessary for a surveillance perspective,” she told reporters in Ottawa.

“When the whole world has Omicron, our next-door neighbour has Omicron, for the most part … we could do sampling for the tests instead of testing maybe every single vaccinated individual.”

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