Julian Wise thought his family had plenty of time to spare when they went to get COVID-19 tests. It was more than two days before they planned to head home to Ontario after a skiing trip in western New York.
But when he arrived at a test centre in Ellicottville, N.Y., he found a crowd of dozens of other Canadians clamouring for polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) tests. He was told his results would likely take more than 72 hours to arrive, because the centre was dealing with overwhelming demand – a result of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
That put Mr. Wise in a predicament shared by many others who have attempted to return to Canada in recent days: Canadian border officials require people entering the country to present negative COVID-19 test results that are less than 72 hours old. Rapid antigen tests, which take just minutes to perform at home but are considered less accurate than lab-based PCR tests, are not accepted.
With some testing centres taking longer to send results because of the Omicron wave, travellers can find themselves effectively stuck.
“The 72-hour limit strikes me as being a little unrealistic, given the current state of affairs,” Mr. Wise said. He added that he is running out of medication and is anxious to return home so he can pick up a new dog his family is adopting.
Mr. Wise still counts himself lucky. He owns a holiday home in Ellicottville, where his family will be able to hunker down until they can get test results back in time. But other Canadians are feeling less serene about Omicron’s impact on the border.
Madison Healey, a resident physician from Ontario who now lives and works in Syracuse, N.Y., said she scrubbed recent plans to visit home when her COVID-19 test didn’t come back in 72 hours.
Even as a medical worker, she said, it was difficult for her to find a clinic that could process tests quickly during the current surge in cases. With her busy work schedule, she thinks she will have to wait two months before she once again has enough time to drive across the border to visit her hometown near Ottawa.
“I think the PCR requirement is what really needs to go,” Dr. Healey said. She argued that rapid tests should suffice for people like her, who are vaccinated and without symptoms.
“I’m not sure why we don’t change to rapid tests, especially when there’s such a shortage of PCR testing and such a backlog in every country. It just puts more strain on the system.”
Other Canadians found themselves stuck at airports, as carriers cancelled thousands of flights over the past week. Many U.S. airlines have said they are suffering from staffing shortages as Omicron spreads through work forces. More than 2,500 flights in the U.S were cancelled on New Year’s Day alone.
Air Canada said around 4 per cent of its flights were affected over the past week by severe weather and crew constraints during the holidays.
On Friday, WestJet said 181 of its staff had tested positive for COVID-19. It added that some flights on its domestic, international and holiday routes were being affected, and that it was trying to consolidate flights and rebook customers.
Megan Skrodolis, who is a U.S. citizen but lives with her Canadian husband on Vancouver Island, found herself waiting in California for days after her Dec. 29 WestJet flight was cancelled because of staffing constraints.
She first arrived in Palm Springs with her two young children four weeks ago to visit her parents. She was caught off guard by the Omicron surge.
Ms. Skrodolis said WestJet’s phone lines were so busy that she couldn’t even get herself placed on hold. She was unable to inquire about whether her tests, by this point more than 72 hours old, would still be valid.
“I had to drive out 45 minutes to the Palm Springs airport and talk to a gate agent, because that was the only option to speak to somebody,” Ms. Skrodolis said.
Unable to find firm answers, she attempted the crossing anyway. She said it must have been luck that border officials and flight staff didn’t notice her COVID-19 test results were more than 72 hours old when she finally arrived in Canada late on New Year’s Eve.
Amid the travel chaos, Global Affairs Canada continued to urge Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel.
“The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the individual,” spokesperson Patricia Skinner said in a statement. “Additional travel restrictions can be imposed suddenly. Airlines can suspend or reduce flights without notice.”
The agency also warned travellers to find out if their insurance coverage is affected by travel advisories, such as Global Affairs’ advisory on Dec. 15 to avoid all non-essential international travel.
The government has warned Canadians who don’t provide valid COVID-19 test results on their returns to the country could face fines of up to $5,000, and could have to quarantine at designated facilities if they are symptomatic.
Ms. Skrodolis, who is now back home on Vancouver Island, said she will have another difficult decision to make in a few months. Her parents won tickets to Disneyland, and the family has a trip planned for March.
For now, she’s waiting to see if the current wave of cases subsides or if the park will let her delay the trip.
“I am very anxious about what March is going to look like in terms of case numbers and if it’s going to be the safest thing to do,” she said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.