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Elsa Lawrence receives a COVID-19 test at Toronto's Pearson airport. The federal government introduced an arrival testing rule for air travellers from outside of the U.S. in November.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s busiest airport and largest airlines are calling on the federal government to drop its arrival testing rule for vaccinated air travellers, as some of the country’s leading health experts also question the policy’s value.

Air Canada, WestJet and Toronto Pearson airport issued a joint letter on Monday to the federal and Ontario governments, calling on them to ditch the arrival test that is required on top of a vaccination mandate and prearrival negative COVID-19 test.

A growing number of physicians and public-health experts also say the rule should be revisited because it is out of step with Canada’s overall approach to COVID-19 and diverts critical lab resources to asymptomatic people with less need.

The letter, signed by the chief medical officers for the airlines and the airport, says that given the buckling domestic testing system, the lab capacity sucked up by testing arriving air travellers is better used in the community.

“As the government has ramped up testing at airports for international arrivals, we have seen front-line workers struggle to get PCR tests and lab processing capacity decrease significantly,” the letter states.

Canadians struggle with flight delays, testing backlogs as they return from U.S.

Traveller confusion reigns amid shifting advice and variants

Since December, many provinces have restricted access to COVID-19 tests because of a lack of capacity. In Ontario, only high-risk individuals and those that work in high-risk settings can access testing.

On Friday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said the national average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is 28 per cent. That is far higher than the rate at the border. The most recent data show that between Dec. 19 and Dec. 25, the positivity rate for fully vaccinated air travellers was 2.18 per cent.

“We know that the primary concern for Omicron is in the community. By extension, the primary need for testing is in our community; not at our airports,” the letter says. It asks Ottawa to revert to random surveillance testing of international air travellers and only require passengers who test positive or have symptoms to isolate.

The federal government introduced the arrival testing rule for air travellers from outside of the United States in November to try and slow the spread of the Omicron variant. Since then, its become the dominant strain of COVID-19 and is driving record case counts and putting pressure on health care systems across the country.

Passengers from outside the U.S. are expected to isolate until they receive a negative test result, or for 14 days – whichever comes first. Air travellers arriving from the U.S. may be subject to random testing but are not required to isolate while they await their test result.

It took several weeks to ramp up the testing and the government has not disclosed what percentage of eligible travellers are being subject to the mandatory testing. On Sunday, Marie-France Proulx, a spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, said it was “up to 100 per cent.”

On Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam suggested the mandatory testing was no longer needed and called it a “capacity drain on the system as a whole.” Still, she said the rule would be evaluated “over time” and the government on Sunday staunchly defended the arrival testing policy, which Ms. Proulx said “makes optimal use of the maximum federal testing capacity.”

“Detecting cases of COVID-19, and in particular of the Omicron variant, is critical at this time of reduced capacity in health and other sectors,” she said. Ms. Proulx added that the government is “mindful of the need to monitor the impact of its testing program” on those in the provinces and territories.

She said the government will assess the pandemic globally and domestically and “adjust border measures as required to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”

Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel, on Sunday said that it doesn’t make scientific sense to keep wide-scale Omicron testing at the border. He said the mandatory testing rule doesn’t match Canada’s overall pandemic strategy, which is to limit spread and reduce severe outcomes of the disease rather than eliminating it entirely.

Instead, Dr. Dhalla said random surveillance testing at the border could still be useful to monitor for new variants – a suggestion also made by Dr. Tam.

But Dr. Dhalla, a vice-president at Toronto’s Unity Health hospital network, said unwinding the rule is no easy task given how politicized the borders have become during the pandemic.

“It would be difficult for the federal government to stop testing unless the provincial governments were on board with that,” he said. Dr. Dhalla said once the country gets out of the latest wave, Ottawa and the provinces should jointly assess the border rules.

Ontario and Alberta both called for tougher border measures in November. And Ontario Premier Doug Ford specifically called for the arrival testing to be brought in.

The federal Liberals have already been burned on the border. Last year, for example, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives released ads attacking Ottawa for allowing “mutant COVID variants” to fly into Canada.

The Globe did not receive a response to requests for comment sent to the Ontario and Alberta governments on Sunday.

Dr. Dhalla also agreed with a suggestion for improved variant monitoring from Zain Chagla, an infectious-diseases physician and associate professor at McMaster University. Dr. Chagla disagrees with the mandatory border testing rule and said it could be more effective to require international travellers who develop symptoms after arriving in Canada to get a lab test and ensure those samples are sequenced to screen for new variants.

Dedicating scarce lab resources to testing asymptomatic people who are vaccinated and have already received a negative test before boarding their flights to Canada doesn’t make sense when symptomatic people in Canada can’t get tests, Dr. Chagla said.

On top of that, he said the lineups that travellers are forced to wait in for the tests could lead to more infections.

Dr. Chagla said groups in the community need the testing capacity more, including long-term care homes that are being forced to wait for test results needed to effectively manage outbreaks. He said demand for testing in the community will also grow when new therapeutics are approved because they require people to be quickly tested to ensure treatment is given on time.

“Border testing did not keep Alpha, Delta and now Omicron out of Canada,” Dr. Chagla said. “There’s a lot of things going wrong here that it’s really starting to get discriminatory towards travellers without actually much yield towards the local population.”

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