Amid coronavirus pandemic, air travellers raise questions about health screening at airports

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Coronavirus: Returning Canadian questions security screening
WATCH: Canada committed to increasing the level of health screening for people returning to the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Sean O’Shea reports, a Toronto woman says she was asked nothing when she came back from Spain on Thursday – Mar 19, 2020

Daniele Di Vincenzo had planned to spend another month in Florida, but when the prime minister told Canadians to come home, he and his wife Rosanna packed up.

When they boarded their Air Canada flight in Orlando on Sunday, they expected to be screened, but nobody asked about their health, said Di Vincenzo, 70, a resident of Bolton, Ont.

“We just got on the plane and nobody said anything,” he said.

“We got into Toronto, same thing.”

At Pearson airport, the Di Vincenzos say they were given a pamphlet telling them to stay home for two weeks. Other than that, they found none of the COVID-19 screening they had heard about.

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As Canadians have poured back into the country over the past week, many have told Global News they did not witness the kind of health screening promised by the government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on March 16 that all passengers would be screened by airlines before boarding flights to Canada, and anyone with COVID-19 symptoms would be denied boarding.

Upon arriving in Canada, travellers are supposed to be screened again by border officers asking whether they have a cough, difficulty breathing or fever.

But that does not appear to have happened all the time.

Click to play video: 'Answering your questions about coronavirus'
Answering your questions about coronavirus

Cindy Ronald said that when she cut short a trip to Hawaii, the only health screening she underwent before boarding her United Airlines flight was an announcement telling passengers who felt unwell not to travel.

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One woman who flew from Los Angeles on Saturday was so ill she died within hours of arriving in Toronto, according to the York Region health officer, who said the death had been confirmed as a COVID-19 case.

It’s unclear how she was able to board her flight, given her apparent symptoms. The government will not comment on the case but is conducting an operational review of what happened.

“This situation is challenging for both air carriers and operators as well as passengers,” said Frédérica Dupuis, acting manager of media relations at Transport Canada.

Rules that came into effect last Thursday require airlines to ask every passenger flying to Canada about their health, look for visible signs of illness and refuse boarding to anyone with symptoms of COVID-19.

“Discussions are taking place daily with domestic and foreign air carriers and operators, and Transport Canada is conducting compliance promotion activities to ensure these are in place,” Dupuis said.

“Overall, air carriers have been receptive to the new health check measures, as they have a vested interest in implementing them for the protection of both their passengers and crews.”

An Air Canada spokesperson said airport screening was a government responsibility but the airline asked passengers health questions and watched for those who were unwell.

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“For our part, bearing in mind that our agents are not medical professionals, we have a general protocol that when we detect a passenger who appears unwell who is attempting to check in or board an aircraft, our agents will make inquiries of the customer in regard to their health,” Peter Fitzpatrick said.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario Premier Doug Ford orders all non-essential businesses to close

“In cases where we have grounds to believe someone may be unfit to travel, we can also deny the customer boarding for their own well-being and that of other customers and employees.”

The airline complied with or exceeded all government directives, he said.

David Willison said when he flew home from Australia, where he was on a working holiday, an Air Canada flight attendant asked passengers health questions as they boarded.

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At Pearson airport, border officers handed out COVID-19 pamphlets to passengers as they disembarked, asking them to self-isolate for 14 days.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu announced Wednesday that all travellers would now face mandatory isolation under the Quarantine Act upon returning to Canada.

But Willison said he was not asked any questions about his health.

However, he also allowed that, with so many people at the airport, questioning them all would have slowed the flow of travellers, meaning they would have spent more time in close proximity.

The last leg of his trip was from Los Angeles to Toronto, and the 18-year-old is concerned he might have been on the same flight as the woman who died hours after the plane landed.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) would not comment on the death of the Markham, Ont., woman but said it was working to make sure border officers were “informed of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and how to process travellers who may be symptomatic.”

“CBSA officers are thoroughly screening travellers seeking entry into Canada who may pose a health and safety risk, and referring travellers who are symptomatic to a PHAC [Public Health Agency of Canada] officer.”
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But Ronald said that at the Toronto airport, there was no effort to keep travellers a safe distance apart, nor was anyone cleaning the touchscreen machines — although Trudeau had vowed “enhanced” disinfection at airports.

“There should have been a worker there with spray, cleaning the screens,” she said, adding the airport could have also used floor tape to separate travellers from each other.

Ronald said a CBSA officer did ask if she had a cough or sore throat, but overall, she was not impressed.

“It just seemed a little lackadaisical compared with what we thought it would be.”

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