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B.C.’s top doctor says airlines are holding back information needed for contact tracing

Dr. Bonnie Henry battles airlines over COVID-19 contact tracing
Air Canada says it's baffled by Dr. Bonnie Henry's assertion that airlines are holding back key contact tracing details from flight manifests. Keith Baldrey has the details.

B.C.’s top doctor says British Columbians would be in “shock” if they saw how little information public health officials receive from airlines and is calling for improved measures to allow for contact tracing.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says there have been concerns since March around the flight manifests airlines turn over to public health teams.

“We get information that may be related to who booked the ticket. If you’re booking on points, it may be whoever owns the points. That name will be on it,” Henry said.

“We very rarely get accurate information about contacts, even where people live. So, it makes it a challenge to know if we need to provide information to somebody in another province or if that person is out of country, where they’re staying when they are here.”

Read more: Coronavirus exposures detected on two new flights through Vancouver

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Air Canada disputes Henry’s claims, saying they provide flight manifests to any Canadian health authority within 24 hours of a request as part of its infectious disease management process.

The country’s largest airline says flight manifest information provided includes names, contact information, seat location, itinerary and more.

Air Canada says passenger contact information is requested when flights are booked and again at check-in.

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“We have not had any requests for flight manifests from any Canadian health authority recently, and specifically from B.C. since March 2020,” a statement from the Air Canada media team reads. “B.C. has only very recently requested that we confirm seat numbers for specific passengers, and we can confirm these were responded to within a few hours.”

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Henry acknowledged they haven’t asked for manifests through the BC Centre for Disease Control since March because it took days to get them.

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“It does not provide the information we need to find people quickly and that’s an ongoing thing. It’s not just Air Canada. It’s every airline. It’s something that’s a challenge around the world,” Henry said.

British Columbia and other jurisdictions rely on contact tracing to identify possible transmissions of the virus.

The rate of transmission on airplanes has been low but there have been dozens of cases where people have tested positive for COVID-19 after flying in or out of Vancouver.

Seven more flights from the past 14 days have been added to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s list of possible exposures, including six Air Canada flights.

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“We need to have a system that allows us to identify people rapidly or we need to have a system that everybody, like they’re doing in China right now, spends two weeks in a quarantine hotel after you arrive,” Henry said.

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“I don’t think that that’s as far as we need to go right now. We’ll see, but at least to be able to have contact information — a name, an address, a phone number, where they stay or where they’re living — that would be incredibly helpful in allowing us to do this efficiently.”

Air Canada says it has been trying to set up a meeting with Henry’s office but has not heard back.

“Frankly, we are baffled by Dr. Henry’s comments,” the Air Canada media team writes.

“Both Air Canada and NACC, the National Airlines Council of Canada representing the major airlines in Canada, have reached out to Dr. Bonnie Henry’s office on multiple occasions to discuss any concerns she may have, and they have so far refused to get back to us.”