Since many theatres and cinemas across the country are in Omicron-induced hibernation, the best show in town can now be found in select Canadian international airports.
The lines to see the show firsthand there are long, and the concessions on-site are grossly overpriced. But the spectacle, nevertheless, makes for great theatre: there you’ll see fully vaccinated travellers who do not have symptoms, and who either have proof of a negative COVID-19 pre-departure molecular test or proof of a positive test from 11 to 180 days earlier, subjected to random PCR tests on arrival. Why? We’re not quite sure any more. For how long? No one will say. But it sure creates the illusion that the federal government is doing all it can to contain the spread of Omicron. And isn’t that what this show is all about, after all?
The plan announced on Nov. 30 was that all travellers, with the exception of those arriving from the U.S., would be required to be tested on arrival. But that promise (as with a handful of others offered up by the federal government during this pandemic) never made it past the aspirational stage, so a random sampling of vaccinated arrivals are being tested at airports across the country every day. Globe reporter Marieke Walsh asked the federal government for updated numbers on just how many molecular tests are being administered to vaccinated, asymptomatic people with no known exposure to the virus, but she did not receive a clear answer.
Looking at numbers from late last year, however, allows for some inference on just how useful this border testing program is today. The week just after Christmas, for example, more than 100,000 vaccinated air travellers were tested upon arrival, and the positivity rate was 4.93 per cent. The national average positivity rate around the same time eclipsed that figure – it was around 19 per cent – which meant that there was far more transmission happening in the community than at the border.
The current national positivity rate is around 22 per cent, and though the government has not provided updated border figures, there’s not much to indicate that transmission among air travellers has disproportionately changed in these first few weeks of January. The question, then, is why the federal government is sticking with the program – committing up to $631-million, according to figures provided to the Toronto Star, to private companies to administer these tests – especially when provinces have restricted eligibility for community-based testing because of limited capacity and overwhelming demand.
There are times when robust border measures are absolutely crucial: when a new and strange virus is suddenly sickening people overseas, for example, or when an unknown and concerning variant is first identified abroad. Border measures essentially buy governments time to take steps such as ramping up supplies, fortifying hospitals and shoring up testing and tracing apparatus. But that time has now passed: Omicron is everywhere, hospitals have cancelled non-urgent procedures and testing and tracing in many jurisdictions have collapsed. Whatever purpose was served in the early days of Omicron alarm by testing vaccinated air passengers upon arrival is now over. With students back in school, and with the recent Health Canada approval of Pfizer’s antiviral treatment (which requires confirmation of a COVID-19 diagnosis) federal resources would be better spent bolstering provincial testing capabilities, instead of carrying on with an exercise in pandemic theatre at international airports.
When pressed on the issue Monday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the federal government has no plans to ramp down the program, citing “great concern” about Omicron and unspecific worsening conditions involving the variant around the world. He also noted that the resources the federal government is using to test air travellers upon arrival are separate from those being tapped by provincial governments (though little is stopping the federal government from simply allocating those resources to the premiers). What he did not say, however, and really could not say with much confidence, is that evidence and data support the continued use of arrival testing at the expense of additional supports for the provinces – just as this government could not say that evidence and data supported its now defunct chaotic, three-day hotel quarantine program for arriving air passengers, and still cannot cite data or evidence for its policy that allows those flying in from the United States to skip quarantine while they wait for their results if they are randomly selected for an arrival test.
Airlines are now pushing for an end for testing-on-arrival procedures, and while they obviously have a financial interest in seeing to a less burdensome flying experience, they’re not wrong in urging the government to “put scarce testing resources where Canadians need them most.” Allocating them to the airport, testing vaccinated, asymptomatic arriving passengers that were just tested before departure clearly is not it.
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