Canada's public health officials updated Canadians on the spread of COVID-19 on Friday (Aug. 28th), taking a moment to clarify their positions on the 14-day quarantine order, as well as social distancing protocols on airplanes.
Speaking to reporters, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, called Canada’s quarantine measure one of “the most stringent quarantine measures around the world.”
Tam was responding to a reporter who asked if Canada’s quarantine protocol is effective while it allows international travellers the ability to connect on “packed domestic flights” without self-isolating first.
Destinations like Australia, in comparison, require travellers to self-isolate for 14 days, first, before continuing on with their journey.
Tam clarified that, in Canada, if you’re symptomatic upon arrival, “you cannot move on,” she said, noting the screening procedures that are in place, such as temperature checks.
Travellers that are asymptomatic, on the other hand, are free to go, Tam explained.
“We would like people to get to their final place of destination and quarantine there,” Tam told reporters. “For all sorts of reasons, I think that’s a very reasonable approach.”
Time to ease the quarantine?
Tam was also asked if whether Canada was looking at testing incoming travellers at airports instead of requiring them to quarantine for two weeks.
The question came amid a Reuters report claiming that Air Canada was planning COVID-19 test trials for passengers arriving at Toronto's Pearson Airport as part of a plan to convince the Canadian government to ease its quarantine order.
Tam said more research is required before any changes will be introduced. However, she added that the Public Health Agency will be "actively looking" at options that can reduce one's isolation period upon returning to Canada.
"As we look at options going forwards and we're sort of reducing the more restrictive measures at the border, how we apply testing in that context is being actively explored," said Tam, offering no specific timeline.
Have a self-isolation plan
Tam went on to explain the various “layers” of safety that air passengers are subject to, including mask wearing, ventilators on airplanes, hand sanitizers, and temperature checks.
She also clarified how passengers should sit while flying – face forward while avoiding unnecessary movements around the cabin.
Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer, added that travellers must have a solid isolation plan for when they arrive in Canada.
“We’ve had individuals who have appeared at our border who don’t have that isolation plan,” Njoo said. “Those individuals have been put in federal quarantine facilities at the border.”
Social distancing on planes (or lack thereof)
Tam also fielded a question that asked why airlines have been given “a break” on not having to enforce social distancing on board, while other sectors, such as restaurants and retail stores, have had to enforce the rules.
The reporter was, in particular, referring to the case of Canadian airlines reintroducing the sale of middle seats after blocking them for several months.
While recognizing the intimate nature of an airplane, Tam stuck to the fact that the Canadian government, to date, does not have any record of passengers spreading COVID-19 to one another while on an aircraft.
“We haven’t had a report in Canada of someone who acquired [COVID-19] during a flight,” said Tam. “It doesn’t mean it cannot happen, which is why layers and measure need to be put in place…Can we guarantee 100 per cent protection? No. It’s many different layers of protection that reduce the risk.”
However: “In public health, we advocate for physical distancing when we can,” said Tam.
Examine your risk
Tam advised travellers to examine their own personal risk when travelling by air.
“If you are a senior, or someone with underlying medical conditions, you have to think about: where did you start your journey from [and] what you’re going to do at the other end, [such as] taking public transport,” said Tam. “Think through all the measures of the journey. Are you comfortable? If not, think twice as to whether that travel is important to you.”
Canadians can see for themselves if they were possibly exposed to COVID-19 on an airplane by accessing this page on the Government of Canada’s website.
Tam said she has had “recent discussions” with the provinces and territories about enhancing the notification procedures for positive COVID-19 cases on planes.
But it all came back to the question: should airplanes follow social distancing rules in the same way that restaurants and retail stores do?
Tam didn’t provide a direct yes or no answer.
However, she said that “everyone should attempt as much as possible to get physical distancing, I think wherever possible, to accommodate someone’s risk.”
As such, she implied that airlines be as accommodating as possible and at least try to enforce social distancing when high-risk passengers are involved.
“If someone does have underlying medical conditions, or if they have disabilities, try and find a right placing of that person on a plane,” she said.
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