With soaring COVID-19 cases and strained laboratory capacity, there are growing reports of prolonged quarantines among vaccinated travellers due to delayed results after being selected for random testing at airports.
CityNews heard from several people who said they have either been directly impacted by random testing at ports of entry by delays or know of others who have been. Also, there were reports of people incorrectly receiving automated emails from the federal government about vaccinated travellers having to stay in quarantine in situations when it’s not technically required.
Vanessa Mika, an Ontario resident, said she has had three COVID-19 vaccine doses and was told at the airport she would need to submit to random testing.
“I tested positive and received an email from the federal government that I have to quarantine for 10 days. My provincial government says five days. Why is there this discrepancy?” she asked.
Bob Dockrill wrote that a friend and his wife returned to Canada from Mexico on Jan. 6 when they, like Mika, were selected for random screening, adding they were told to quarantine until the results came in. As of Thursday, there was no response.
“After numerous calls, he still can’t get the results. Because he still has to quarantine, he has now missed a full week of work, for which he is not paid, and cannot return until he has those results,” Dockrill wrote to CityNews.
But the delays seen at airports aren’t unique.
Greg Brown, a 66-year-old Ontario resident with severe asthma, told CityNews in an email he became ill at tested positive on an antigen test at the end of December after spending time with family (the family members tested negative on rapid tests before visiting).
Brown and his wife, along with his daughter’s family, got PCR tests in Collingwood and Prince Edward County, respectively, before the end of the year.
“We have called the contact number, can only leave a message, which we have done a few times. We provided specifics. We have received no callbacks or explanations,” he wrote on Thursday.
According to the latest Ontario government data released Friday morning, there are currently more than 72,000 tests waiting to be processed while more than 58,000 tests were completed on Thursday. More recently the provincial government cut back the eligibility for those looking for publicly funding PCR tests due to a sharp rise in cases.
The current rules for random screening after travel
Just like Canadians have experienced throughout the pandemic, travellers continue to face changing rules and restrictions.
According to the Government of Canada’s published guidelines on January 14, people with two or more doses aren’t exempt from random screening.
However, as of January 15, those who can show proof of a positive molecular test between 11 and 180 days of the date of arrival, children under five years old, aviation crews and essential service providers and those arriving by boat won’t be asked to take a random test.
Those who travelled outside of Canada or the United States within 14 days of arrival, can be subject of no-cost, random testing — which can happen at the airport or a self-swab kit to take home and submit within 24 hours of entering the country. They will need to follow their quarantine plan (a prerequisite for arrival) until the test results are in.
“Individuals who have completed 14 days of quarantine without receiving their test results may release themselves from quarantine provided they are not experiencing COVID-related symptoms,” a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) spokesperson told CityNews in a statement.
If someone eventually tests positive in that period, a further 10-day isolation period is required under the rules.
For those returning from somewhere in Canada or the United States and have only been in either country for the past two weeks, they might also face random test requirements but quarantine is not required while the sample is processed.
Despite the randomized testing, all travellers were encouraged by officials to pre-register for on-arrival molecular tests.
How are the federal government and testing companies responding?
CityNews contacted the Public Health Agency of Canada and Switch Health to ask questions about why travellers are facing extended delays in results, forcing many into prolonged quarantines.
The PHAC spokesperson said with increasing travel volumes along with the rise in Omicron variant cases, travellers should “expect delays” at air and land border entry points. They added the agency is aware that some aren’t receiving test results “within a reasonable timeframe” and redirected people to contact the test providers.
“It should also be noted that lab capacity to process these specimens remains stretched in light of the increas[ing] number of individuals requiring testing within communities and also travellers,” the statement said.
“Most travellers will receive their test results within 72 hours from the time it was taken at the airport and generally four to seven days for take-home kits given the increased traveller volumes and overall demands on testing laboratories as a result of Omicron.”
Jordan Paquet, vice-president of public affairs with Switch Health — a Canadian health care company that provides COVID-19 testing services at Toronto’s airports, said in a statement to CityNews that a spike in demand for tests, combined with reduced staff to analyze samples, has resulted in longer-than-normal processing times.
He said the company subcontracts laboratories across Ontario and they’re moving around tests all across Ontario to balance capacity.
“With a higher number of positive cases, it takes additional time to properly analyze and sequence these samples,” Paquet wrote.