False positive COVID-19 test delays passengers for hours at Iqaluit airport after flight from Ottawa

The Nunavut government has confirmed that a medical travel patient onboard a flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit has twice tested negative for COVID-19 after initially receiving a positive test result. The first test result led passengers on the flight to isolate at the airport for three hours.

Once back in Iqaluit on Wednesday, individual then tested negative twice

Passengers aboard Canadian North Flight FAB101 from Ottawa to Iqaluit are shown isolating in the secure area of Iqaluit's airport on Wednesday while they wait for COVID-19 test results for an individual on the flight to come back from the Qikiqtani General Hospital. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

About 100 passengers on a flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit were delayed for nearly three hours at the Iqaluit airport on Wednesday, after what was thought to be a positive COVID-19 test for one of the passengers onboard was brought to the attention of the Nunavut government after the flight had already taken off.

The test turned out to be a false positive, according to a territorial government spokesperson, and passengers have now returned home. They had been isolated in the secure area of the Iqaluit airport.

The person who was tested was participating in the "expedited medical travel" program, which allows Nunavummiut to fly south for medical appointments and return to the territory without completing the usually required 14-day hotel isolation.

In a statement, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson said the person began their trip to Ottawa on Sunday and received a COVID-19 test on Monday.

Upon landing in Iqaluit, the individual was taken to Qikiqtani General Hospital and isolated, and two followup tests were then administered. Both the GeneXpert machine and BioFire machine returned negative results, according to a Nunavut official briefing the passengers isolating at the airport.

There are currently no active cases in the territory.

The Nunavut government received what it thought was a positive COVID-19 test result for a passenger onboard Canadian North Flight FAB101 from Ottawa to Iqaluit after the flight took off. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Many passengers had isolated at Ottawa hotel

The first briefing by government officials to passengers on Canadian North Flight FAB101 came about two hours after the plane landed in Iqaluit.

Maurice Lamothe, one of the passengers, told Radio-Canada that he was looking forward to going home because he was hungry.

He said breakfast bags were handed out early Wednesday morning before he left his hotel in Ottawa, where he and many others on the plane had been isolating before returning to Nunavut.

That bag was taken from him at airport security, so he said all he'd eaten was a cookie. The government distributed chocolate bars at about 2:30 p.m. 

'All sorts of stories are going through our heads'

For much of the pandemic, the Nunavut government has contracted with several hotels in southern cities to allow residents of the territory to isolate for two weeks before they fly back home.

People who had isolated were on the flight with the person travelling as part of the expedited medical travel program.

"It's too bad. Our two weeks in the hotel were a kind of fail, finally ... we don't want to be the patient zero of Iqaluit. It's not funny," Lamothe said in French.

Speaking before the briefing, he said there was a lot of anxiety in the area of the airport where passengers were being held.

"The people here are just asking what's going on. They haven't told us very much. They've said nothing, so we're guessing. We've heard someone has tested positive, so all sorts of stories are going through our heads," Lamothe said.

Preston Bromley also isolated at an Ottawa hotel before getting on Wednesday's flight to Iqaluit.

"We understand that mistakes happen, but our main question is whether this was policy to allow expedited medical passengers on the plane without a negative test result in hand or whether it was a mistake at some point in the process."

Written by Sara Frizzell, based on interviews by Matisse Harvey