At first, Tori Nixon thought the email was a scam.
In it, the federal government wrote that either Nixon or her sister had been selected for a mandatory random COVID-19 test at Toronto Pearson Airport on May 29, but that it had not been completed — and that they could face a fine as a result.
A call to a government hotline revealed the email was real.
The trouble, Nixon says, is that the pair were never told about the testing at the airport, and only found out about it through the email three days later.
“It’s been confusing and chaotic,” she told CBC News. “We weren’t pulled aside, we weren’t in a separate line, everything was normal.”
It’s now been nearly two weeks since the sisters returned home to Oakville, Ont., from their vacation in Ireland and they’re still waiting to receive a kit for the random border testing.
“It seems pretty counterproductive at this point,” said Nixon. “If we had COVID coming back, we could have been out spreading it. If we test positive now, how do we know that we got it abroad?”
Airports, businesses call for end to random testing
The Nixon sisters’ experience comes amid mounting calls from airport operators and business leaders for the federal government to scrap random testing and other public health measures at customs to help ease hours-long delays some passengers face when they arrive in Canada.
But last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) announced COVID-19 restrictions would remain in place at airports and land borders until at least June 30.
In a statement, a spokesperson for PHAC acknowledged it was aware of instances where travellers may not have been advised they were selected for the mandatory random testing until receiving the follow-up email.
“PHAC is working with the Canada Border Services Agency towards a resolution,” read the statement. “Mandatory randomized testing continues to be an essential part of the Government of Canada’s surveillance program to track the level of importation of COVID-19 virus into Canada, and identify new variants of concern.”
Fed border testing contracts total up to $1.1B
Since the spring of 2021, the federal government has awarded contracts to private vendors worth up to a collective $1.1 billion for COVID-19 border testing, according to information provided by Public Services and Procurement Canada.
New contracts have been granted, and existing contracts have been extended, to cover border testing services across the country until at least July 31. LifeLabs took over as the provider for Ontario starting June 1, after receiving a contract worth up to $35.6 million to provide border testing services till the end of July, with an option to extend for longer.
Many infectious disease experts say that money would be better spent elsewhere.
“Incentivizing communities to do this type of testing, if surveillance is needed, makes a whole lot more sense than continuing to provide it at the airport,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.
“Extend criteria for testing in local communities of symptomatic travellers. So if I step off a flight [and] the next day I’m symptomatic, I have access to a PCR test in my community and that could be linked to sequencing.”
Experts say testing not needed at airports
Chagla told CBC News he’d like to see a broad stakeholder discussion around what the future of testing with COVID-19 and travel needs to be, and how it can be done reliably outside of the airport.
Since testing capacity was overwhelmed by the emergence of the Omicron variant, experts have turned to hospitalization numbers and wastewater surveillance to effectively monitor the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease consultant with the University Health Network in Toronto, doesn’t think airport screening is needed at all –– even to detect new variants.
“I don’t know what [the testing] accomplishes, quite honestly,” he said. “At worst … it will create a sense of hassle, headache and embitterment for travellers who may be less keen on [heeding] public health messaging because of this leaving a sort of sour taste in their mouth.”
In a statement, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) — which operates Pearson airport — told CBC News it continues to call on the federal government to streamline or eliminate inbound public health requirements at Canadian airports.
“We are also asking the federal government to move random testing upon arrival off-site from Canada’s airports quickly, or explore other effective and proven options, such as community wastewater testing,” reads the statement.
Meanwhile, the Nixon sisters are still waiting for the test. They found out through a government robocall late last week that it was Maddi who needs to complete it.
“I have no problem with actual random testing at the airport,” said Maddi Nixon. “I’m not sure I see the point a week later.”