Some Canadian travellers want to know why those entering from the U.S. face less stringent rules

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Some Canadian travellers required to spend days in isolation waiting for COVID-19 test results after arriving in the country from abroad want to know why Ottawa allows people coming in from the U.S. to skip quarantine.

Some Canadian travellers ordered to spend several days in quarantine waiting for their COVID-19 test results question why Ottawa is allowing tested travellers from the United States to skip quarantine.(Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Some Canadian travellers required to spend days in isolation waiting for COVID-19 test results after returning home from abroad want to know why Ottawa allows people arriving from the U.S. to skip quarantine.

"There's something fishy," said Kevin McNally of Gatineau, Que. who flew from Panama to Montreal on Jan. 7. He was tested on arrival and waited six days at home in quarantine before he received his negative test result.

McNally said it was hard to endure the long wait, knowing tested travellers who arrive in Canada after being in the U.S. are exempt from the quarantine requirement.

"I felt like a prisoner in my own country and yet an American can come over here and not quarantine," said McNally who works as a travel consultant. "It makes no sense."

As part of its beefed-up arrival-testing program, Ottawa is doling out PCR tests daily to thousands of randomly selected, fully vaccinated international travellers upon arrival.

After returning from a trip to Panama, Kevin McNally of Gatineau, Que. waited six days in quarantine before he got his negative test results. (Kevin McNally)

According to rules posted on the government's website, randomly tested travellers who have been in a country outside the U.S. within the past 14 days must quarantine while waiting for their test results. Those who test negative can leave isolation.

But tested travellers, including Canadians, who haven't been anywhere outside Canada except the U.S. within the past 14 days can skip quarantine while awaiting their results — even though cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant are surging in the U.S.

All unvaccinated travellers entering from any country are tested upon arrival and must quarantine for 14 days.

Government responds

CBC News asked the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) why vaccinated travellers from the U.S. who are tested get to skip quarantine.

In an email sent Monday, spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau didn't respond to the question and instead repeated the quarantine rules from the government's website.

Earlier this month, PHAC told CBC News that its travel rules are rooted in science.

"Border measures are based on available data, scientific evidence and monitoring of the epidemiological situation both in Canada and internationally," said spokesperson André Gagnon in an email on Jan. 7.

Sherif Barakat of Ottawa said that statement doesn't add up. Barakat flew home from Cancun on Jan. 9, was tested upon arrival and waited five days at home in quarantine before he received his negative test result.

Barakat said the government has yet to offer up the science explaining why he had to quarantine but someone entering from the U.S. is exempt.

"If you're treating people differently, then the question is why?" he said. "The disease doesn't have any boundaries."

Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital, said it's time to rethink Canada's mass arrival testing program. (Unity Health Toronto)

Global epidemiologist, Dr. Prabhat Jha said there's no scientific explanation for less stringent rules for travellers from the U.S., as Omicron has spread globally.

"What's the difference between someone coming from the U.K. or someone coming from New York? There's not in terms of the Omicron prevalence and the spread," said Jha, who works at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Get rid of arrival testing?

Ottawa's arrival testing program is also under scrutiny, because the government is potentially spending millions of dollars daily on the program at a time when Omicron has already spread across Canada.

PHAC said the government recently boosted its testing capacity to test 26,000 travellers daily upon arrival and that the cost for each test can range from $143 to $188.

Members of the travel industry and some physicians, including Jha, argue since travellers already must take a pre-departure molecular test and Omicron is ubiquitous, funds used for mass-arrival testing could be better spent on fighting COVID-19 on the domestic front.

The COVID-19 test-positivity rate for randomly tested fully vaccinated travellers is just above two per cent. Across Canada, the test-positivity rate is above 20 per cent.

Jha said Canada laying out disparate rules for tested travellers from the U.S. is just one more reason why its arrival testing program is flawed and needs to be scrapped.

"Insist on a pre-departure, high-quality test before [travellers] leave and beyond that, anything else you do gives you so little gains, it's just not worth it," said Jha. "It's a waste of resources."

The government is ramping up arrival testing with the goal of testing all fully vaccinated travellers entering Canada from outside the U.S. upon arrival. PHAC has yet to explain why it will continue only randomly testing vaccinated travellers entering from the U.S.

On Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam admitted that Canada's mass-arrival testing program is questionable at this point.

"It is a capacity drain on the systems as a whole," she said at a news conference. "The whole world has Omicron."

Tam suggested that doing some random arrival testing to keep tabs on the coronavirus would suffice. However, she said that Canada's current goal to test most travellers upon arrival would stay in place for now.

"We will evaluate that over time."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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