A positive COVID-19 test allows travellers to skirt hotel stay: CBSA officer

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A Canadian Border Services officer is ringing the alarm bells over one of the country’s COVID-19 measures at the border which they say could be allowing cases of the virus to be imported into Canada.

In February, the federal government announced new, more stringent rules for travellers: anyone entering Canada via airplane has to stay in a government-approved accommodation (GAA) – referred to as ‘COVID hotels’ – for three days and must provide a negative COVID-19 test taken 72-hours before departure.

Another option for passengers, however, is to provide a positive COVID-19 test taken 14 to 90 days before the aircraft’s departure.

“When there’s changes or new loopholes or exemptions that can be exploited, it takes a bit of time for people to learn about it and learn what to do,” a CBSA officer said. The CBSA officer, whose identity Global News has agreed not to share, expressed concerns that this rule is how Canada could be importing a number of COVID-19 cases into the country.

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“So we hadn’t been seeing really any — I don’t remember seeing any positive tests — and then when that exemption was kind of known about… then we started noticing people carrying a positive test.”

If a traveller chooses to do the latter, the Health Canada website states that person may “go directly to your place of quarantine and remain there for the full 14-day quarantine period.”

This means those travellers are not required to stay at one of the GAAs, and are therefore not subject to the same scrutiny as those who are forced to stay at the hotels.

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In April, the officer said they saw around two to five positive tests from travellers a day, which exempts the person from a stay at one of GAAs.

“I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve worked with that hasn’t received a positive test from someone at some point,” the officer added.

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In an email to Global News, Anne Genier, a spokesperson for Health Canada said the exemption “addresses the potential for residual positive tests given that individuals can continue to test positive up to three months after they have recovered and are no longer infectious.”

“From February 22 to April 28, 2021, a total of 331 travellers have provided proof of a previous positive molecular test taken between 14 and 90 days before departure,” the email read.

Asked whether the agency is concerned that this rule could allow travellers to skirt the rules, Genier said if an air operator suspects someone is providing “false or misleading information with respect to their COVID-19 molecular test, they must report the traveller’s name and flight information to the Minister of Transport as soon as feasible.”

She added that any traveller who provides false or misleading information about their health during screening “could be subject to a penalty of up to $5,000 under the Aeronautics Act.”

But, the CBSA officer said verifying that these positive tests are legitimate is difficult.

“There’s no standard because every clinic that’s issuing a test has a different format,” they said.

CBSA officers try to verify the name, the date, and the test’s result, looking for any obvious errors, but beyond that, verification is nearly impossible, this officer said.

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“We’re not in charge of the investigation side of these tests, nor the determination of their validity,” they said. “Those concerns are flagged for public health.”

Asked how officials confirm a test presented by a traveller is legitimate, Jacqueline Callin, a spokesperson for CBSA confirmed officers “have the authority to review, challenge and confirm travellers’ statements and direct them to a quarantine officer.”

“(Officers) are trained in examination techniques and use indicators, intelligence, and other information to determine a person’s admissibility to Canada,” Callin wrote. “This includes confirming the documentation required to be found admissible is valid and authentic.”

The border officials also ask people if they are feeling unwell when they enter Canada but they do not have “discretion to exempt travellers from quarantine, based on an assumed level of risk the traveller poses or any other factor,” the CBSA clarified.

However, Callin said, “where questions arise with regards to a travellers’ quarantine plan, health status or molecular test documentation, CBSA border services officers refer the traveller to a Public Health Agency of Canada Quarantine officer who will make a determination on the next steps.”

“It is important to note that the CBSA does not issue fines in the enforcement of the Quarantine Act requirements; the decision on whether to pursue any enforcement action related to the public health orders rests with PHAC and/or the police of jurisdiction,” the email read.

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Between Jan. 7, 2021 and April 22, 2021, the agency intercepted 14 “suspected fraudulent test result documents at airports of entry,” Calin said.

However, the CBSA was unable to confirm how many of those were suspected fraudulent positive COVID-19 tests.

Time to shut down all travel?

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said allowing those who present a positive test 14-90 days before their date of travel to skip the COVID-19 hotels is “extremely foolish.”

He said anyone with Photoshop could doctor a document to say they have previously had COVID-19.

“So you’re just inviting people to do that,” he said. “Moreover, the Brazillian variant certainly seems to be very adept at re-infecting, so the fact that someone’s had COVID shouldn’t give them a free pass.”

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At the least, all people who enter Canada should be subject to a 14-day stay at a quarantine facility, Furness said, regardless of the COVID-19 test they provide at the airport.

What Canada really needs to do is “stop travel” altogether, Furness said. “It’s a really simple thing.”

Furness said only Canadian citizens and really essential workers should be allowed to fly into the country, and then should be subject to a mandatory, 14-day quarantine at a supervised facility.

“We’d have plenty of space for them if we had fewer travellers,” he said.

The CBSA officer agreed, saying Canada needs to close this exemption, adding that anyone entering Canada should have to stay at one of the GAA COVID-19 hotels.

“I work at a border that’s closed, but I’m busy,” they said. “So that’s a concern.”

While the number of people entering Canada has fallen dramatically compared to pre-COVID times, many people are still choosing to travel.

Last year saw an 87.5 per cent decrease in the number of travellers entering Canada compared to 2019, according to CBSA data.

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However, the latest data released by the agency said between March 22, 2020, and April 11, 2021, a total of 11,983,716 people had travelled into the country.

Of those, 2,768,055 travellers have entered Canada via airplane.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated that “now is not the time to travel.”

Trudeau said, “the only people travelling across our border in any way right now are either permanent citizens or Canadians returning home, essential workers and a limited number of exceptional cases.”

Trudeau said his government is “following very closely” the data collected at the border, saying so far there has been an “extremely low and manageable number of cases.”

He added, though, that his government is “always looking at doing more enforcement and stepping up on the penalties” at the border. “And we will continue to work with the provinces on that,” he said.

Trudeau pointed to the use of rapid COVID-19 tests at airports, saying there are millions of tests available that are being underutilized.

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Data supplied to the Canadian Press by PHAC show that more than 2,000 people returning to Canada since the federal government brought in the hotel quarantines have tested positive for COVID-19.

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More than a quarter of them were infected with one of the new, more transmissible variants of concern (VOC).

The numbers showed that between Feb. 22 and April 22, 557 international air travellers tested positive for one of the VOCs.

–With files from The Canadian Press

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