Random travel testing ‘not keeping up’ with virus, may do little to curb spread amid community surge: experts

By Palak Mangat January 10, 2022

As Ottawa looks to bring more Covid tests online throughout the month, some experts and travellers say it’s unclear whether a randomized testing regime for those entering Canada, in place since last summer, is helping to contain spread of the virus amid the emergence of the more contagious Omicron variant.

Julianne Piper, a research fellow and project coordinator with Simon Fraser University’s Pandemic and Borders initiative, said prioritizing travel-related molecular testing (including PCR tests) at ports of entry “may not be the best use of resources, given the strain” on the overall health system, which has seen testing and contact tracing capacities overwhelmed in regions like Ontario.

Piper said she hasn’t travelled internationally since the pandemic given there is no certain way to “eliminate” travel-related risks.

But ditching such efforts “in the medium to longer term” could also be risky once Omicron subsides, as randomized testing helps surveil the virus’ transmission and possibly catch new variants when more emerge, she cautioned.

“In the early months of 2020, there was a lot of leeway for new and emerging evidence in this policy area,” Piper told Parliament Today. “We’ve learned a lot in the last 20 months, and I think the very question of what the randomized testing is trying to achieve points to a lack of clarity and transparency in terms of what the goals and metrics are, and how it’s been implemented.”

An instructional video posted by the federal government advises travellers on how to complete a home testing kit for COVID-19. Such tests must be completed within 24 hours of entry. (Screenshot/Switch Health)

Ottawa pivoted its testing program for fully vaccinated travellers to random selections upon arrivals beginning August 9 of last year.

The feds have vowed to step up testing capacity for returning travellers, but on Friday, word emerged that officials are still only randomly testing travellers, nearly six weeks after Ottawa said that all those entering from the U.S. would be tested upon arrival.

Recent data shared by the CBSA shows that the positivity rate in the early days of the program sat at 0.23 per cent for fully vaccinated air travelers and 0.15 per cent for fully jabbed land travellers, figures that then dipped to 0.15 per cent and 0.19 per cent, respectively, from September 10 to November 27.

Data from late-November is still flowing in and remains incomplete, though the positivity rate for tests recorded so far remains below one per cent.

Tammy Jarbeau, a Health Canada spokesperson, said in a January 5 statement that selection for mandatory random testing is “automatic” and “occurs through a computer algorithm that randomly selects a predetermined number of eligible travellers per day at each port of entry.”

Once landed, border officers notify travellers whether they have been chosen and direct them accordingly at the airports, while those coming in through land borders receive a home kit that needs to be completed within 24 hours of their entry.

Travellers do not pay a fee for the arrival test.

Jarbeau said the program is “part” of the country’s surveilling efforts to monitor the virus’ prevalence in international travellers and “contributes” to the detection of variants.

Laying out the “mechanics” of the process, she said the algorithm sets a sample target across all ports of entry before it draws on “historical traveller volumes” at those sites, then using seven days of “foot traffic” info to sort when and how many travellers need to be randomly chosen within a given hour, to ensure that target is met.

She clarified that neither Public Health Agency of Canada or CBSA officials “are involved in any way in the identification” and selection of travellers for random testing. If somebody trying to enter “appears infected,” officials cannot direct them toward the program.

Asked whether travellers need to be checked into the system first with all their travel documents before the algorithm determines whether they will be tested, Jarbeau said the CBSA “would not divulge these details for operational and security reasons.”

For Piper, who said a truly random program should not rely on the “discretion” of any person, transparency around the system’s process could have offered a more “full picture” of travel-related transmission risks.

Ditch PCR border tests as supplies become scarce: tourism expert

Frederic Dimanche, a tourism and business professor at Ryerson University who spent his holidays in his home country of France, urged Ottawa to reconsider at least one of its requirements.

Dimanche reiterated calls from other experts, which have dated back to last fall, for the feds to ditch pricier PCR tests for returning travellers in favour of the faster and more convenient antigen tests, though they may not be as reliable. (Travellers already need to show proof of a negative test before coming into Canada.)

Given the low infection rates already highlighted through the CBSA figures, “it would save [Ottawa] a lot of money” that could be funnelled into other provinces and communities that more direly need to beef up testing capacity, said Dimanche.

The professor added that governments more carefully scrutinizing how they spend their limited dollars could curb the “tremendous impact” being felt by the tourism, hospitality and airline sectors — targeted industries to which Ottawa is gearing its “final pivot” of financial support.

Beefing up border testing is an “overkill measure” disincentivizing people from travelling, which puts a “bigger strain” on the tourism sector, he noted, adding “the government in turn will have to help.

Dimanche, who is returning to Canada today, is readying himself for long lineups and wait times at airports, much like the fall when there was little space for physical distance — “a catch-22” scenario that could offset the risks governments are hoping to limit by discouraging travel.

He said ultimately, the main responsibility of the feds is to provide tests and cash to provinces to support its capacity, along with testing at the federal ports of entry.

“They are basically showing they are doing something,” he said.