Ontario and British Columbia are demanding that the federal government ensure provinces receive quick and complete contact information for airline passengers who may have been on a flight where a traveller has tested positive for COVID-19.
B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena sent a letter to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau on Wednesday raising concerns about the quality of data shared from flight manifests and asking the federal government to ensure the provinces get more useful information.
“The data our public health officials currently receive is not necessarily complete and is sometimes unusable,” the letter reads.
Bonnie Henry, B.C.‘s top health official, on Tuesday criticized the quality of information from airlines, saying it was rarely accurate.
“It would shock you to see what we get from the airlines when we request a flight manifest,” she said.
The letter also says that instead of listing the name and contact information of each person on the plane, the data often give the name of a travel agency that booked the flight or the individual who bought the ticket.
“We encourage the federal government to ensure the data gathered is useable and traces back to the individual traveller directly.”
Travis Kann, a spokesman for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in a statement that province is also urging the federal government to plan for the time when border measures ease.
“Ontario agrees that [the federal government] must also improve the completeness of information provided for local public health units to conduct contact and case management, as well as the speed with which the federal government provides this information.”
Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman, acknowledged that although the airline has responded within a few hours to recent requests for information on specific passengers, the airline might not have “direct customer contact” information if tickets are purchased through a third party such as a travel agency or website.
Instead, it would have the contact information of the booking agency.
Mr. Fitzpatrick said the airline has received no requests from any public health agency in Canada for a flight’s full list of names and contact information of passengers and crew, known as a manifest, since March.
WestJet said on Wednesday it provides passenger information to a public health agency within 24 hours of a request, but has not received any such request – nor been told of any – from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. The centre collects contact information on behalf of Dr. Henry’s office.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have provided fulsome manifest information that can include name, contact information and reservation details of our guests in an expedient manner when requested by public health authorities across the country,” Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
A spokesperson for Transport Canada did not provide a comment on Wednesday.
According to the BC Centre for Disease Control’s website, since late March, B.C passengers who were seated near a person with a case of COVID-19 that was recognized after arrival will no longer be directly notified of their potential exposure. That information is posted online.
Dr. Henry said health officials were trying to trace contacts in March and April, but it took days sometimes to get useful information. She added they suspended contact tracing when people were told to stay home and stopped travelling.
“We’re now at the point where we need to find everybody again, so a really important thing would be able to get accurate information that we can contact people quickly,” she said on Tuesday.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Wednesday that airlines clearly expressed that they are under federal jurisdiction, and so the province made the case to Mr. Garneau.
He said the pandemic will not end soon, so improving the quality of the information and contact tracing is essential.
“To improve contact tracing now is good for the industry, good for the public, good for the response to COVID-19. And that’s what we’re asking for.”
Mr. Dix added that restrictions on visitors to Canada must be maintained.
“That’s not good business for the airline. But it has to continue because it’s in the interest of Canada, British Columbia and of the health of people here and our economy here.”
Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam said on Tuesday the data airlines provide could be improved, noting that the lack of detail in flight manifests makes it difficult to reach some people.
Dr. Tam also said there hasn’t been a confirmed case of in-flight transmission.
“Very few of our cases actually come from travellers at the moment,” she said, adding that now that case numbers have gone down, there is more interest in following up on some fights to see if anyone was exposed to or transmitted the virus.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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