Alberta will require international travellers arriving by both air and land to submit to temperature checks as part of a provincial screening process layered on top of federal requirements – a system Premier Jason Kenney says will be the most rigorous in Canada.
As of next week, all passengers arriving in Edmonton and Calgary from destinations outside Canada will be subject to scans by infrared temperature-sensing devices. If someone is found to have a high temperature through this initial screen, provincial officials will do a second check with a touchless thermometer. Anyone who has a fever will be subject to a questionnaire about other symptoms.
The push to take travellers’ temperatures stands in contrast to the position of Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, who said earlier this month that checking for fever as a means of screening for COVID-19 “is not effective, at all," in part because there are large numbers of asymptomatic or presymptomatic people.
On Wednesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said Alberta’s decision to conduct temperature checks “is a supplementary health-screening measure based on an assessment of what is taking place within its own jurisdiction.” The agency reiterated that the use of thermal scanning at ports of entry hasn’t proven to be an effective measure to detect communicable disease.
Mr. Kenney, however, said fever has been found to be a COVID-19 symptom in almost 30 per cent of Alberta’s cases. He said the move is part of a larger push to enact “smart” border screening for COVID-19, while at the same time allowing international travel to, at some point, resume.
The conservative Premier, long a chief critic of the Trudeau government, has also argued it was “irresponsible” for Canada to wait as long as it did to close its borders, especially from countries with high levels of infection.
However, he was muted in his criticism of Ottawa on Wednesday, and praised Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland for working with Alberta “in a co-operative spirit on the measures we just announced.”
As part of the plan, provincial checkpoints will be established in Alberta’s two major airports for international travellers who have cleared customs and screening by the Canada Border Services Agency. Travellers will be asked to detail their plans for 14 days of federally mandated isolation, including where they will stay, how they will travel there from the airport and how they will get food and medications.
As an added check, provincial officials will ask travellers for their phone numbers and will call new arrivals three days later to make sure they’re following public-health orders.
In the weeks ahead, the Alberta government will also establish a COVID-19 screening facility in Coutts, Alta., where 90 per cent of land crossings from the United States take place. Commercial carriers, or truckers – who have been allowed to continue crossing the U.S.-Canada border throughout the lockdown – won’t have to get their temperature taken.
International travel has declined drastically, but there are still about 400 people a week arriving at airports from outside the country, Mr. Kenney said. The beefed-up Alberta screening is similar to what British Columbia recently put in place.
“There’s been huge economic pain. Some peoples’ lives have been turned upside down,” the Alberta Premier told reporters Wednesday.
“I just don’t want to see those sacrifices wasted, or those gains lost, by not taking every necessary precaution at the borders, for international arrivals.”
For those who don’t have a place to self-isolate, the province will provide accommodation. While the province does not have the authority to “deport” an individual, it has the ability, as “an exceptional last resort,” to forcibly quarantine an incoming traveller who refuses to self-isolate, Mr. Kenney’s press secretary Christine Myatt said.
Ms. Myatt also said other jurisdictions including Taiwan and Singapore have effectively used thermal scans as part of a “broader strategy” for screening incoming travellers.
Alberta is not an outlier in taking the temperature of passengers. Temperature checks have become a norm in many Asian countries, and Air Canada said this month it will require all passengers to have their temperature checked. Major U.S. airlines have endorsed temperature checks at airports by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, according to Reuters.
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union warned this week that a global push for more remote temperature screening could invade peoples’ privacy, and inaccurate testing could give a false sense of security.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and scientist, said in an interview Wednesday that fevers are intermittent. People get fevers for reasons other than having COVID-19. If anyone wants to hide signs of illness, they can take fever medication shortly before their plane lands. Many people infected with the virus are asymptomatic, he said.
“It’s an added level of protection, but it’s not a very strong level of protection,” Dr. Bogoch, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Medicine, said of temperature screening.
Still, Dr. Bogoch added, the screening might catch a small number of travellers infected with COVID-19 and could instill more public confidence.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.