Cross with caution: U.S. testing crunch causing Canadians to get stuck stateside
The U.S. is currently facing a shortage of COVID-19 tests due to a surge in the number of cases
While the Canadian government continues to advise against crossing the U.S.-Canada border, people who choose to make the trip are being warned to plan ahead and expect the unexpected.
"It put us in a dangerous situation by turning us around [at the border]," Andrea Ruys said of her recent experience attempting to re-enter Canada.
Ruys, along with her mother and brother, travelled across the border by car to Illinois to visit family over the holidays — all were fully vaccinated and did rapid tests before they left.
She had booked a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT), a rapid test accepted by Canadian border officials, ahead of time at a Walgreens. It would have been done at no cost, she said, and it was one that they had used in the past without issue.
However, three hours before they were supposed to get their test done, on Dec. 28, they got an email stating that their tests had been cancelled and they had to reschedule.
"[The pharmacist] said they were all out," she said.
Ruys said they called testing facilities offering the rapid NAAT tests, even in other states but the earliest dates they could find weren't until January.
Eventually they gave up looking and went on to the border to try and cross regardless.
"We were really left without an option," Ruys said.
"We thought, worst case scenario, we would have to quarantine."
But that wasn't the case. After being sent to secondary inspection at the border, Ruys said they were told by Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials they could proceed into Canada but they would each be subject to $6,200 fines, or they could go back to try and find tests.
"We obviously don't have $18,600 laying around for fines or for anything really," she said.
Ruys said they were left to find a hotel after 9 p.m. during a holiday and what they ended up booking, she felt, put them at risk a greater risk of catching the virus.
"It was fully booked [and] there was no mask policy at that hotel; it was just suggested," she said.
Ruys said they ended up paying $150 US each for the test, along with the cost of the hotel room, and returned to Canada on Dec. 29.
"It's not a choice for us to cross and take the fine," she said.
When asked about the situation, the Canadian Border Services Agency and PHAC said the federal government continues to advise avoiding all non-essential travel outside Canada, regardless of vaccination status.
Still a problem
While this happened at the end of December during a high traffic period at the border, Canadians can still find themselves stuck, according to Dr. Phillip Olla, the CEO of Audacia Bioscience which runs Assure Travel Clinics.
The company operates several COVID testing sites in the U.S., including a site in Plymouth, Mich., the location where Ruys and her family eventually got their tests done.
"Going over there, you're going at your own risk, knowing you could get stuck," Olla said.
Olla said at one point over the holidays, there were about 90 Canadian families stuck in Michigan and while the volumes of Canadians crossing the border has decreased, the situation in the state has worsened.
"The volumes of the U.S.A. testing and the positivity rates have increased so even though there's not as many people stuck, there are still massive shortages over there," he said.
What we coach people on is if they're going to travel is to try and have back up plans and be prepared.- Brian Masse
Olla said that his company has suspended its $75 test in the U.S. because, he said, they can't guarantee results of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will come back before 72 hours is up.
"The results are taking longer than 72 hours, so by the time you get it back, it's expired," he said adding that it is difficult to get into a facility that offers the rapid PCR testing.
"There is a shortage of rapid PCR tests [in the U.S.] just like there's a shortage in Canada," he said. "We were encouraging people to go... not anymore, [people should] just chill for a little bit."
Brian Masse, the NDP MP for Windsor West, said that he has been hearing similar complaints from people getting stuck stateside.
"What we coach people on is if they're going to travel is to try and have back up plans and be prepared," Masse said.
"Omicron virus has created increased complications with testing in Michigan and you just become vulnerable to their system there."
He said it's the volume of testing being done in the U.S. that is causing the issues.
Masse said some he has spoken with have called the company doing the testing to ask for it to be expedited.
"They were actually able to get the test within the timeframe," he said.
Some companies have begun charging more to get testing done quicker, Masse said.
"It'll cost a lot more but at the same time you can still get over if you want to but build that into your travel package," he said adding that he is not dissuading people from crossing.
"You have to remember, some people have been without seeing their family for up to three years."