Air travel: Expert says benefits of random testing unclear – CTV News

With the federal government resuming random COVID-19 testing for inbound air travellers as of Tuesday, one expert is calling for more transparency on how the measure is keeping Canadians safe.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) had paused random testing at airports last month amid mounting pressure to address long delays at airports. But as of July 19, fully vaccinated international air travellers landing in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal or Toronto will be once again subject to mandatory random testing — this time at offsite facilities rather than at the airport.
"Clearly, there were issues at the airport and this was something that was halted for a period of time. For whatever reason, they decided to bring it back now. And, you know, it’s not entirely clear what’s happening with this data," infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ office has said only four to five per cent of travellers are selected for mandatory random testing. In a statement, PHAC told CTV’s Your Morning, "random testing is to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 by collecting data on travellers entering the country in order to see where the risks come from, in order to be prepared for possible future waves."
But Bogoch said it’s still unclear what the federal government is doing with this data and how it’s helping Canadians stay safe.
"If there’s good meaningful, actionable outcomes as a result of this data, great. Let’s hear about what they are and then we can make a value judgment. Is it worth it? Do we have alternative methods of collecting data? And how much is it costing, what is the return on investment for collecting of this data?" Bogoch said.
"I just think it would be helpful to hear from senior health officials, what’s being done with this data? What are the actual outcomes of this data?" he added.
Last Thursday, Duclos said random testing for inbound air travellers was crucial to monitoring the entrance of new variants.
Random testing at airports isn’t the only way health officials can collect data on new variants coming into the country. Bogoch said health authorities could also examine wastewater from airplanes or survey COVID-19-positive people about any recent travel they’ve done.
"Wastewater collection on airplanes has been done in the past and they’ve used this to track for example, antimicrobial resistance in different parts of the world. And I think that’s a low hanging fruit and it’s obviously not invasive in terms of impacting people’s travel," Bogoch said.
Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airports Council, said she doesn’t believe the return of random testing will make the airport delays any worse, given that the testing will be conducted at pharmacies or testing provider locations rather than onsite.
"We did work with the government to ensure that it wouldn’t impede the flow, which means people will get an email if they’re selected for testing. They’ll be tested off site," she told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.
However, Pasher believes there are other public health measures at the border that are contributing to long airport wait times, such as vaccine mandates for foreign tourists as well as the ArriveCAN app.
"People need to upload all of this information about vaccination and quarantine plans and answer all of these questions, and that does create additional time at our border and that is part of what is slowing things down," she said.
Sources have previously told CTV News that the federal government has no intention of dropping the ArriveCan app because it gives PHAC key health information about travellers who test positive for COVID-19.
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Spencer Van Dyk.        
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