Calgary airport testing program up in the air after impending changes to federal rules

The federal and provincial governments are deciding what will happen to the Calgary airport’s COVID-19 testing pilot program as new federal travel regulations come into effect. 

Federal and provincial officials discussing how new protocols will affect pilot project

A pilot program allows those landing in Calgary to take a COVID test inside the airport in order to reduce their quarantine from two weeks to just a few days. Government officials are now deciding what happens next. (The Canadian Press)

The federal and provincial governments are deciding what happens to the Calgary airport's COVID-19 testing pilot program as new federal travel regulations are about to come into effect. 

"The governments of Canada and Alberta are currently discussing how the new testing and quarantine requirements will affect the Alberta Border Testing Pilot Program. More details will be available soon," Health Canada said in a statement. 

CBC News spent more than a week asking Ottawa for an update on the airport program after impending changes for passengers arriving in Canada by air were announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in late January.

The pilot project is a voluntary program for travellers at the Calgary International Airport and Coutts border crossing. It allows them to exit the 14-day quarantine early upon receipt of a negative COVID test, an agreement to follow strict protocols and to complete a second negative test a week after arrival. It runs as a partnership between Alberta and the federal government.

Under the new rules, all air travellers arriving in Canada are required to take three COVID-19 tests to travel here, arrive in and leave quarantine. The first test is required within 72 hours of departure to the country, the second at the designated destination Canadian airport and the third to be taken near the end of the 14-day quarantine period to confirm an individual has not been incubating the virus. 

Health Canada also says soon travellers will be required to stay in government-approved hotels for three nights at their own cost while awaiting test results taken at the airport.

Negative tests will allow the travellers to exit the hotels and finish quarantine at their planned location. Those with positive tests will be required to complete the full quarantine in a designated government facility. 

"We are currently working with the federal government to determine the impact of the recently announced measures on the border pilot program. At this time, no decisions have been made," Alberta Health Services said in a statement. 

The Calgary Airport Authority says the program is still operating under its regular rules. Right now, arrivals from the U.K. and South Africa are not permitted to use the airport program, due to highly contagious COVID-19 variants first identified in those countries.

As of Feb. 4, the province said more than 47,604 travellers had used the airport testing program, with a total positivity rate of 1.11 per cent. 

What is 'acceptable risk'?

Doctors have expressed concerns about the program, saying the positivity rate indicates that people who have declared no symptoms and no known exposure are still carrying COVID-19 into Canada.

"I've always had concerns with the shortened quarantine periods, given the fact that we know that the incubation period can be up to 14 days for someone who has been exposed, and a shortened period does increase the chance that someone may be carrying the virus and pass it on to others without being picked up," said Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson.

"There is no perfect, ideal program for maintaining public safety and continuity," said Meier-Stephenson, who is an infectious disease physician and virology researcher at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine. 

"It comes down to what is our acceptable risk." 


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