Passengers on board at least 20 flights between popular sunny vacation destinations and Canada may have been exposed to COVID-19 during the holidays, according to data published by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
The possible exposures occurred prior to urgent new rules imposed by the government that came into force at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, which are meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 from international destinations to Canada.
The flights with possible exposures during the holidays were operated by various airlines — including Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Air Transat — between Dec. 22 and 31. The flights departed from cities that Canadians typically visit during the winter months to escape the cold temperatures and rain at home.
Countries that passengers arrived from on flights with potential exposures of the novel coronavirus included the United States, Barbados, Aruba, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Canada’s transport minister said Wednesday that this is no time for Canadians to be taking vacations. He also said airlines should not be promoting leisure travel.
“I feel that it is totally unhelpful and counterproductive for airlines to try to encourage international travel,” said transport minister Marc Garneau on Wednesday.
“So many Canadians could have travelled this year. However, they decided not to because that’s what is better for Canadians, for Canada, for their health, for the health of their loved ones.”
It’s not clear exactly how many passengers were on board each of these flights or how many travellers may have been exposed to the virus. PHAC does not publish these details and follow-up on any potential exposures is the responsibility of local health officials.
The flights landed in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, but it’s impossible to say where passengers ended their journeys in Canada as there are currently no restrictions preventing travellers from boarding domestic flights and transiting to another city once they arrive.
“I cannot say this strongly enough, non-essential travel continues to be strongly discouraged,” Garneau said.
A rapid increase in COVID-19 infection rates in Canada and globally has become a matter of increasing urgency for the federal government. On Wednesday, four senior cabinet ministers, including Garneau, held a joint press conference to reveal new travel restrictions.
The new requirements state that any air passenger arriving from abroad will be required to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test result completed within 72 hours of boarding their flight. There are limited exemptions to the new rules for countries where PCR testing — the typical nasal swab test for COVID-19 — is not widely available and children under the age of five are also exempt.
The government said the new measures are meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent importing the virus from other countries to Canada.
“Now is not the time to travel out of Canada for vacation purposes or any non-essential purposes,” said public safety and emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair.
“We have read many reports of travellers returning home to Canada, and Canadians are understandably concerned and upset about these travellers.
“Some are returning from sunny vacation destinations or elsewhere in the world where COVID is present. Our top priority has to be the health and safety of all Canadians.”
Wednesday’s press conference followed a week of media reports about public officials, including several high-profile politicians, who travelled to sunny vacation destinations during the holiday season.
Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips and Alberta municipal affairs minister Tracy Allard both resigned following reports that revealed they vacationed in the Caribbean and Hawaii, respectively, despite government warnings against non-essential travel.
The resignations followed widespread public outrage directed toward both politicians, plus condemnation from premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney.
The Globe and Mail also recently reported that Air Canada hired social media influencers to promote non-essential leisure travel during the pandemic.
How risky is flying?
Since the start of the pandemic in March, the government has implemented a series of restrictions either limiting or changing the rules for air travel.
The initial wave of travel restrictions included a ban on all non-essential travel to Canada for foreign nationals, plus closure of the Canada-U.S. land border for all but essential travel, such as commercial vehicles.
The government then implemented mandatory rules for wearing masks in airports and when on board planes, and imposed a 14-day quarantine period for anyone whose reason for travel is considered non-essential. These rules apply regardless of whether a passenger is showing symptoms of the virus.
“Given the increase in the number of cases here at home and around the world, health guidelines are changing rapidly,” said foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne.
“We are seeing many countries put in place tougher measures and imposing stricter lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. As we have been saying, those who decide to travel may face fewer transportation options that will make it harder to return to Canada. And in some cases, this could mean staying abroad for a longer period than expected.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been at least 2,300 flights that either arrived in or departed from Canadian cities with potential exposures of COVID-19 on board, according to data provided by PHAC.
While a potential exposure does not necessarily mean someone was on board the flight with a confirmed case of COVID-19 — the person could have contracted the virus after the flight and public health officials warn other passengers anyways because it’s impossible to say exactly where and when transmission occurred — the risks of flying have been well-documented in several scientific studies.
Researchers have, however, pointed out that studies showing possible transmission on board flights were conducted prior to mandatory masking rules, while the airline industry and health experts say increased sanitization and air filtration on commercial flights make the risks of transmission on board a plane very low.
But some public health experts still warn against non-essential travel, saying it’s a risk people shouldn’t take, especially as the number of infections increases globally.
University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness said the government should place far stricter limits on air travel, including grounding planes, to prevent the spread of the virus. He warned of a post-holiday spike in cases as a result of travel and family gatherings prior to the start of the holiday season.
Furness is also critical of the latest restrictions implemented by the government, saying air travel is largely responsible for the global spread of the virus from one country to another.
“We know that negative testing prior to boarding doesn’t prevent COVID spread,” he said. “It may reduce it somewhat, but it won’t protect us from importing more of the highly contagious strains.”
The reasons for this are that travellers could obtain a negative test result and then subsequently contract the virus prior to boarding their flight to Canada. PCR testing has also been shown to produce false-negative results, which means people who are infected with the virus don’t always test positive.
Still, Furness said, the latest restrictions may discourage some people from travelling for non-essential purposes.
“It makes travel much more stressful and less convenient, and that’s useful. It’s much harder to deny that you’re taking a significant risk when you have to be subjected to a nasal swab,” he said.
Response from airline industry
Furness says countries that have done the best at limiting the spread of COVID-19 are those that imposed the strictest limitations on international travel very early in the pandemic. He points to New Zealand as an example, which essentially froze all incoming flights as a way of stopping the virus’ spread.
But representatives from the airline industry say restrictions imposed upon passengers returning to Canada are among the strictest in the world, pointing to the mandated 14-day quarantine for all non-essential travellers as an example.
Mike McNaney, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said the industry has taken significant measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 on board planes. This includes enhanced sanitization, mandatory masking rules, pre- boarding temperature checks and health screening.
McNaney also says ongoing pilot projects at the Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto international airports air providing scientific evidence that can be used by the government to determine the best quarantine approaches in the future.
Prior to the second wave of the pandemic, McNancy and other airline industry executives had advocated for loosening the quarantine restrictions for travellers from countries deemed to be safe.
“We are very major proponents of a robust testing regime,” McNaney said.
“Within aviation, within the broader travel and tourism community, it is going to be absolutely critical that we continue to push forth with testing, that we continue to tie detailed, widespread testing to quarantine measures.”
Morgan Bell, a spokesperson for WestJet, said the company has proactively informed passengers of any potential exposure to COVID-19 on board flights and cooperated with public health officials to ensure all necessary steps are taken to promote safety on board planes.
Bell said the company has operated 30,000 flights and transported 1.3 million passengers since the start of the pandemic without a single confirmed case of on-board transmission of the virus.
She also criticized the government’s latest restrictions, saying the announcement has been “chaotic” and reiterating earlier calls for widespread testing of all passengers upon arrival in Canada.
Air Canada, Sunwing and Air Transat did not respond to questions about this story by deadline.
Meanwhile, federal health minister Patty Hajdu also said Wednesday that the “science-based” pilot projects offering PCR testing upon arrival at Canadian airports will provide evidence that can be used by provincial and federal governments to inform future testing policies.
Still, she said, Canadians should avoid all non-essential travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure limited public health resources can be directed toward those who need them most.
“Stay home, cancel your travels if not absolutely necessary, and help out wherever you can,” she said.
Since the start of the pandemic, roughly 1.8 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Canada are linked to international travel, according to PHAC. About one per cent of cases are linked to people who came into close contact with a person who travelled internationally.
While the majority of COVID-19 infections are linked to domestic spread, or community spread, public health experts and government officials have warned against travel because it has the potential to introduce the virus into communities with low infection rates or very few cases.
As of Wednesday, 624,522 people have been infected with COVID-19 in Canada and 16,336 people have died.