The number of flights into Canada bearing people with confirmed infections of COVID-19 continues to rise, including two repatriation flights for Canadians stranded abroad amid pandemic travel restrictions.
There were 158 international flights to Canada between March 13 and March 27 on which at least one person was found to be infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Two of the flights, from Ecuador on March 27 and Peru on March 26, were Air Canada repatriation flights organized by Ottawa to bring home Canadians stranded after international borders closed and flights were cancelled because of civil aviation restrictions intended to limit the spread of the virus. Others were commercial flights in which the government played no role.
Airlines that operate the flights say they are complying with Ottawa’s request for help, and are subjecting passengers to government-mandated health questionnaires but are not qualified – nor required – to take a passenger’s temperature.
The union representing flight attendants says the workers need better protection from the virus, including properly fitted gloves, surgical gowns, N95 masks and face shields, as well as training of the use the equipment.
More than 1,000 flight attendants who worked flights with COVID-19 on board have been put into 14-day quarantines in recent weeks, said Wesley Lesosky, head of the Air Canada component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"It’s out of control,” Mr. Lesosky said.
Global Affairs, which organizes the repatriation flights operated by commercial airlines, said about 10,000 people have come home in the past two weeks. Six flights from Africa and Europe were scheduled to land on Wednesday, with more flights from Poland, Pakistan, Hungary and other countries planned over the next week.
The federal government’s public-health message for Canadians has been to stay home if you are a non-essential worker. For Canadians abroad, the message has been to get home.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday said repatriation flights were necessary, saying returning travellers must go into isolation to avoid exposing others to the virus that has killed more than 110 and infected more than 9,600 people in Canada.
When he announced Canada’s international border would partly close on March 18, Mr. Trudeau urged Canadians to fly home and asked airlines to check passengers. However, he said people with COVID-19 symptoms would not be permitted to return and were eligible for financial assistance abroad.
“We want Canadians to come home,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday. “But we also very much expect and demand that they keep themselves and their neighbours safe by self-isolating in rigorous conditions for two weeks as soon as they get home. We would much rather be able to have people home than have them stranded elsewhere around the world where things are getting worse.
“In Canada, we try to look out for each other," Mr. Trudeau said.
As of March 21, more than 420,000 Canadians abroad registered with the government for travel and emergency notices, including rescue flights home amid the pandemic. This is an increase of 72 per cent from a year ago.
As of Wednesday, there were 391,000 registered, as travellers have been returning.
On March 13, the government told Canadians to avoid non-essential international travel and warned they might have trouble getting a flight home, obtaining consular services and be subject to strict quarantines.
The border closing announced on March 18 was expanded on March 20 to include the U.S. border, except for trade. As of March 30, Canadians flying domestically are also subject to health checks by airlines.
Eighty-two domestic flights since March 13 have had COVID-19 on board, according to government data.
Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams said he believes the global spread of COVID-19 caught a lot of people off guard, and many people did not return to Canada in time.
“At the same time, they are Canadians – their systems are here, their health system, as well as their physician,” he said. “If they do develop COVID-19, we’ll give them the best care we can, and of course we want to make sure it doesn’t spread to other family members."
Because people can have the coronavirus for days without showing symptoms, people boarding planes may not know they are carrying the virus.
Christophe Hennebelle, a spokesman for Air Transat, said the airline’s employees have been complying with federal rules and asking passengers about cough, fever and respiratory troubles in addition to looking for symptoms.
“We have not checked anybody’s temperature, since we are not qualified nor authorized to do so,” said Mr. Hennebelle, referring questions about the appropriateness of the flights to the government and public health agencies.
Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said the airline is assisting the government to return Canadians, many of whom are in urgent need of getting home.
“In many of these cases, Canadians abroad were on short-term trips and are therefore not prepared for long stays, often lacking even certainty as to their accommodation,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “There is no requirement for our employees to take passengers’ temperatures and I would further note our staff are not trained medical professionals.”
With a report from Laura Stone
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