A rare glimpse inside Calgary's COVID-19 isolation hotel, as travellers share concerns
Mandatory 14-day stays result in complaints about food, medical help, poor communication
During his 14-day mandatory stay in Calgary's COVID-19 isolation hotel, Angelo Vanegas says he couldn't get food for up to 15 hours at a time overnight, was penned up in a small room and had to "beg" to get medical treatment for an infection. He says he felt ignored, disrespected and mistreated.
Another traveller, Mitch Beaulieu, said it seemed to him like a sci-fi thriller. Police and security officers escorted him from Calgary's airport to a van with blacked-out windows and took him to a hotel with hallways lined with plastic. There, he was greeted by people wearing hazmat suits, gloves and face masks.
The two men, now back home, are among the few willing to speak publicly about their mandatory stays in Calgary's isolation hotel.
It's one of 11 sites in nine cities designated by Canada's chief public health officer to reduce the risk of travel-related spread of COVID-19. They're meant to house travellers returning to Canada who don't have a valid COVID-19 test result or quarantine plan. The government has consistently advised against non-essential travel abroad, and detailed rules regarding which COVID-19 tests are accepted and how to comply with mandatory isolation requirements are readily available online.
Inside the Calgary site, one is "pretty much isolated from anyone around the world. You are just here and that's it," said Vanegas, 30, a furloughed Air Canada flight attendant.
"I feel like a prisoner in here, you know."
While the Public Health Agency of Canada won't say how many people have stayed in the Calgary facility — or even where it is, in order, it says, to protect the privacy and safety of travellers — 5,030 people have been lodged in the sites countrywide as of Jan. 24.
Vanegas says he tested negative for the coronavirus before his flight back to Calgary and had expected to catch a connection to Edmonton, where he would complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine period required of all returning non-essential travellers in the home he shares with his mother and sister. However, health officials rejected his quarantine plan because the women both had underlying medical conditions.
Vanegas says travellers quarantined at the Calgary site must stay in their rooms for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day. He provided photos of the floors and walls outside his fifth-floor hotel room, some of which were covered over and taped with plastic.
A security guard is stationed next to the elevator to ensure no one leaves — unless they are venturing outside for their daily 15 minutes in the hotel's courtyard.
Three meals that he described as "kid-sized" are delivered each day, with no meals after 6 p.m. Room service isn't available, only unhealthy snacks are available to purchase, and outside food deliveries are prohibited as are any care packages from friends or family.
The worst, he says, was dealing with an ingrown toenail that became infected.
When he requested medical assistance, he says he was offered some Epsom salts to soak his foot. He says his complaint wasn't taken seriously until the condition worsened and he threatened to call an ambulance.
"I said to them, listen, you guys take me to the hospital, or I will have to call 911 because I am in so much pain."
Vanegas says he went to the hospital the next day and was given antibiotics. He was escorted back to have his toenail removed two days later.
"I should be able to get access to medical treatment right away," he said, not be "begging for it."
He also says he found the way staff talked to him when he asked for soap and shampoo to be "humiliating and degrading."
"They say, 'Oh, you already got a bar of soap three days ago."'
When asked about his situation, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it cannot comment on any information regarding individual travellers, citing privacy and safety concerns.
Beaulieu, a Calgary business owner, was transferred to the same facility after he showed health officials the negative COVID-19 test result that allowed him to board his flight home from the U.S.
Beaulieu says he paid $220 US for the test, but it wasn't one of the kinds required by Canadian health officials.
"The whole experience was just, it was unbelievable. I literally felt like I was in a third-world country," he said from his hotel room.
He provided CBC News with a video of an exchange between himself and two people at the hotel that he believed to be employees with the Canadian Red Cross, where he repeatedly asks them where he is, how long he'll be there and when he'll get an approved test. They tell him they don't know.
Beaulieu said he felt he was left in the dark for several days. He ultimately called the Red Cross, but he said that didn't help.
"Their answer is, 'Oh, sir, somebody will come by and talk to you,'" he said.
"Nobody knows anything about anything. And I'm just stuck here, waiting."
His wife, who arrived at the airport to pick him up, returned home in tears.
Beaulieu said he arrived at the hotel without his luggage and only had the clothes he was wearing and his phone.
He said the worst part was the lack of communication and clear instructions after his arrival, and that it would have gone much smoother if someone had shown some empathy and compassion.
"If they were just kind and told you what is happening and said, 'Hey, you got to go here for two weeks. And this is the case. Sorry, it sucks. But that's what it is,'" he said.
"I mean, that's one thing, but to just be completely left in the dark and thrown in a room and have no communication with anybody, that's unacceptable."
"We're in Canada here, this is like, taking away my rights and freedom," he said.
When asked about Beaulieu's case, the Public Health Agency of Canada again stated that it does not comment on individual cases.
On Monday, about 432 people in Alberta were being treated in hospitals for the COVID-19, including 76 in ICU, and 1,710 had died. There were 6,196 active COVID-19 cases, the lowest seen in the province since Nov. 2, when total cases had started to rise exponentially before peaking at more than 21,000 on Dec. 13. That was a day after the province imposed the toughest restrictions yet as infection rates and hospitalization numbers spiked dangerously.
The province eased some of those restrictions on Monday.
Trudeau defends 'medically based isolations'
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Tuesday how he responded to the complaints from the two travellers.
"I think it's extremely important to make a clear distinction that these aren't detentions; these are medically based isolations," Trudeau said.
"We are not detaining people. These are public health measures that are necessary to ensure that we are keeping Canadians safe, particularly given the arrival … of new variants in Canada, and extensively around the world."
Beaulieu was eventually allowed to go home after spending three nights in the hotel. He tested negative for COVID-19 on Jan. 27 and was released the following night.
Vanegas was allowed to leave on Jan. 30, after the full 14-day quarantine. He says he's healthy and back home in Edmonton. He said he has contacted a lawyer to discuss a possible claim or lawsuit.
Trudeau said three days is the average length of time for the federally approved polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test to be returned, which is why it's the expected amount of time a traveller might have to spend in isolation at an approved airport hotel.
But if a PCR test came back negative more quickly, they'd be free to go if they could self-isolate for the rest of the mandatory 14 days as required at home, Trudeau said.
- Watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's full response to a question about the complaints and whether these kinds of reports feed into conspiracy theories about government internment camps in the video below:
Neither Beaulieu nor Vanegas were billed for their hotel stays.
However, the federal government said in late January it would soon charge international air travellers up to $2,000 for mandatory testing and a minimum three-day self-isolation in a government-approved hotel. Details on that are expected to be unveiled in coming days.
"We think that if they're going to make that choice [to travel], that they should bear the full cost and responsibility of all the measures that are necessary to keep Canadians safe," Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has said.
The federal government also announced Tuesday that non-essential travellers entering Canada through the land border would soon need to provide proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arrival — just as air travellers have been required to do for a month.
Penalties are stiff for anyone who violates instructions given to them under the Quarantine Act upon their arrival back into Canada.
The maximum jail sentence is six months and/or $750,000 in fines. If someone breaks their quarantine or isolation requirements and causes death or serious bodily harm to someone, they could face up to three years in prison, a fine of up to $1 million or both.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.