A new pilot program that will test international travellers arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport will launch in early 2021, according to a Dec. 30 report published by the National Post.
While details on the project are still fuzzy, the initiative will reportedly test roughly 315,000 travellers for COVID-19 over a three-month period.
A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford told the Post that the project, which has yet to be finalized, will launch “in the early new year” and will be a joint effort between the Ontario and federal governments.
The update comes as Premier Ford and federal officials cap the year pointing fingers over the notion that COVID-19 cases in Canada are spiking due to the lack of testing options at airports, which have seen an uptick in passenger traffic in recent weeks.
"These folks are roaming the streets"
Speaking to media just days before Ontario entered lockdown, Ford took aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his government’s lack of action at the border, noting how 64,000 international travellers passed through YYZ the week before and left “basically unchecked” for the coronavirus.
“These folks are roaming the streets and we’re letting it happen,” Ford said on Dec. 21.
Premier Ford criticized Ottawa for not moving fast enough on implementing COVID-19 screening measures at airports, and vowed to launch his own testing program at Toronto Pearson, with or without federal support.
“If the Prime Minister doesn’t want to do it, I’m gonna do it,” Ford said. “I’m not going to put the people of Ontario at risk just because the federal government doesn’t want to do tests.”
Borders are "like a spaghetti drainer"
Ford’s frustration boiled over one day after Ottawa suspended all flights from the United Kingdom following reports of a highly-contagious new strain of the coronavirus spreading in London.
The travel ban, which was originally set for 72 hours and then was later extended, is set to expire on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Our borders are like a sieve,” Ford said. “Like a spaghetti drainer…[travellers] aren’t getting checked.”
Ford has also been an outspoken critic of Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement, an order that he believes many travelling Canadians are not following.
Travel isn't the problem, feds say
Meanwhile, several officials at the federal level have spoken out against criticism that Canada’s protocols at the border are too relaxed.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has said that Canada’s border controls are among the strongest in the world.
"Over the past few days, we've heard a number of comments which, frankly, are an unfortunate misrepresentation of what is actually happening at our borders," Blair told reporters on Dec. 23.
Blair noted that COVID-19 cases related to international travel account for only “1.8 per cent of all cases.”
“That means 98.2 per cent of COVID transmissions are a result of community transmissions, not international travel,” he said.
Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, has said that community transmission is the bigger problem right now – not travel.
“It's not really the importation of cases," Dr. Njoo told journalists on Dec. 23.
Canada's Health Minister Patty Hadju has echoed a similar statement, telling the Toronto Star that the “strong travel restrictions and border measures in place in Canada since March 2020 are working.”
“With a 14-day quarantine in place, our border measures are some of the strongest in the world...We will continue to use research and science to inform any next steps on border measures,” said Minister Hadju.
The study in Alberta aims to lessen quarantine times for travellers entering Canada at the Coutts land border crossing and at Calgary International Airport by offering a COVID-19 test to anyone that would like one.
The initiative, which launched Nov. 2, can reduce a travellers’ 14-day self-isolation time to nearly 48 hours if the person receives a negative test result. Participants must also take a second test six or seven days after their initial arrival.
"A reasonable path forward"
Toronto Pearson has already been the backdrop for a study on quarantine times and the effectiveness of rapid testing.
From Sept. 3 to Nov. 14, Air Canada, McMaster HealthLabs and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority tested more than 16,000 international travellers as part of a study that looked for alternate solutions to quarantining for 14 days.
Interim results based on more than 20,000 tests conducted on more than 8,600 study participants recruited from Sept. 3 to Oct. 2, 2020, showed that 99% of study participants tested negative for COVID-19 with 1% testing positive.
The study has, so far, demonstrated the feasibility of airport-based testing with self-collected nasal/oral swabs as well as home-based collection during quarantine.
"Testing upon arrival with a follow-up test to catch later positive results could provide a reasonable path forward to help keep borders and the economy open while maintaining public safety," said Dr. Vivek Goel, co-principal investigator of the study, professor at the University of Toronto and a former CEO of Public Health Ontario.
A final report of the study is expected to be released in January 2021.
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