Flights delivering passengers infected with COVID-19 into Canadian airports are now predominantly domestic routes, a trend that began around the onset of spring break, according to federal data on airplane exposures compiled by The Globe and Mail.
Between Jan. 1 and May 5, there were 1,873 flights that arrived or departed from airports across Canada where at least one passenger later tested positive for the virus, according to an analysis of flight details published on a federal government website designed to help passengers determine if they have been exposed to COVID-19 during air travel.
International flights accounted for more than 60 per cent of cases linked to air travel in January and February. But by April that trend had reversed, with domestic travel accounting for more than 60 per cent of flights linked to COVID-19 infections.
Overall, the number of international flights with positive cases fell from 331 in January to 193 by April, while domestic flights saw a near-equal rise – from 195 virus-positive flights in January to 331 last month. April saw the highest number of Canadian flights with positive cases, 524, since January.
The results of the data analysis raised questions among public health experts and political leaders about whether Canada needs to do more to stem the spread of COVID-19 from domestic air travel.
Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert who is co-leading the Canadian arm of the World Health Organization’s global Solidarity Trial testing coronavirus vaccines, said the data indicate that variants have been brought to Canada on flights and across land borders, but now this is less of a concern given the prevalence of domestic flights with at least one infected passenger.
“All of our attention on our national border doesn’t really address us solving the problem internally,” said Dr. Murthy, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia.
Preventing people with the disease from spreading it to other places where there’s less COVID-19 is imperative, he said, but he had no easy fixes as to how to stop this trend.
The rise in domestic flights linked to positive cases in recent months is being driven by a surge in travel across Western Canada starting in late March and early April, roughly coinciding with spring breaks in B.C. and Alberta.
Alberta in particular saw a sharp increase in air travel linked to COVID-19. Nearly 150 flights left airports in the province in April with passengers who later tested positive for the virus, up from fewer than 30 a month earlier. That included 30 flights arriving in Calgary from Fort McMurray, where the regional government recently declared a state of emergency. Of 115 flights linked to positive cases that landed in Alberta last month, just 10 were international arrivals.
Premier Jason Kenney last week imposed a new lockdown across the province to stem the spread of COVID-19, but the measures do not include travel restrictions.
B.C. saw a steep rise in flights linked to COVID-19 cases between March 19 and April 9. Nearly 130 flights carrying passengers who later tested positive arrived at B.C. airports during that three-week period. Of those, four-fifths came from other parts of Canada, according to data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Unlike Ontario and Quebec, the B.C. NDP government has said it does not have the jurisdiction to stop other Canadians from vacationing within its territory, based on a confidential legal opinion from a provincial adviser. Instead, anyone flying or driving into B.C. must remain in the one of the three regions the province has created to limit long road trips.
After reviewing the new data compiled by The Globe, Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, has a message for anyone in Canada contemplating a non-essential trip out West: “Stay away. We don’t want you right now; this is not the time to visit.”
He said his government has previously raised concerns with Ottawa around domestic air travel and now wants people flying within Canada to prove they recently tested negative for COVID-19 – the same as international travellers.
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t,” he said in a phone interview on Friday.
Last week, Ontario’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party went further in its criticism by launching an ad blitz attacking the federal Liberal government for not shutting down international travel before variants of concern were introduced into the country. Premier Doug Ford’s government has demanded that Ottawa imposes predeparture COVID-19 testing for domestic flyers and bans “all non-essential travel” into Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is willing to work with Ontario to further tighten borders. Mr. Trudeau added that his federal government has already limited most international travel to Canada, with exceptions that include temporary foreign workers, agricultural workers and those allowed in for compassionate reasons.
Unlike much of the rest of Canada, international travel remained the largest source of flights linked to COVID-19 cases in Ontario, accounting for two-thirds of such flights to the province in April.
Canada has stopped all direct flights from hard-hit India and Pakistan and requires three negative tests from all international air travellers, who must also stay in quarantine hotels for three nights awaiting test results, then complete their 14-day quarantine at home. Those crossing land borders also require three tests and must follow a quarantine plan reviewed by a border officer.
The Globe asked the federal ministers of health and public safety and emergency preparedness for comment on the flight data Friday morning and whether Ottawa will take further steps to curb domestic air travel, but none of their spokespeople replied.
Last month, the Public Health Agency of Canada said more than 2,000 international passengers tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Canada over the eight-week period that ended April 22.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he is curious about how many domestic flyers may have spread the disease further upon arriving at their destination.
Provinces could impose a special levy on those domestic flyers not travelling for essential reasons to try to curb this trend, Dr. Furness said.
He likened those travelling for pleasure during this third wave of the pandemic to anyone who drinks and drives.
“It’s selfish, it’s irresponsible, it’s dangerous and it poses horrible harm to others.”
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