Tens of thousands of passengers connect from international to domestic flights before quarantine

Kathy Gillis has no choice but to board a plane during the pandemic: she needs to fly from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Toronto for cancer treatment.

Gillis said she felt safe during the flight, speaking briefly to Global News after disembarking at Pearson Airport.

As of Friday, her northern Ontario community of Thunder Bay only had one active COVID-19 case. It’s linked to travel.

Gillis was concerned to think her return trip could have passengers on board who connected via an international flight, and then switched to her domestic flight without quarantining first.

In July 2020, an estimated 154,000 passengers arrived in Canada, and of those, an estimated 33,000 then took a domestic flight, according to Transport Canada.

Countries such as New Zealand and Australia mandate arriving passengers quarantine at the first place they land. Canada’s quarantine rules do not require a point-of-entry quarantine – if you don’t show symptoms, you can continue to your final destination before quarantining for 14 days.

Global News spoke with a flight attendant who has been exposed to COVID-19 more than once on the job, and says some colleagues have been exposed as many as five times. Global News agreed to maintain the flight attendant’s anonymity as the individual fears career retribution.

The flight attendant spoke to Global News believing point-of-entry quarantine would reduce the number of COVID-19 exposures during travel, and believes many Canadians aren’t aware of the issue.

Each time the flight attendant was exposed, they were asked to self-monitor for 14 days, and self-isolate if symptoms developed. The flight attendant had to stay off the job, with pay. The individual never tested positive.

“Keep your bubble very small and try not to go outside very much or go and run errands. So basically your life becomes a little bit more secluded,” the flight attendant said.

Throughout the pandemic, the Canadian government has maintained the risk of COVID-19 transmission while flying is low.

But three new studies in an upcoming journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint a different picture.

One looked at the case of four people, a husband and wife and two flight crew members, who all got SARS-CoV-2 and who travelled on the same flight from Boston to Hong Kong in March.

“Their virus genetic sequences are identical, unique and belong to a clade not previously identified in Hong Kong,” reads the report. “Our results strongly suggest in-flight transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

A different study found “the risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class–like settings with spacious seating arrangements.”

That same study finds long flights “can provide conditions for superspreader events.”

A third study “provides evidence of asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 on an airplane.”

These studies were completed before wearing a mask was mandatory on flights.

When Global News asked Transport Canada whether new studies and evidence changed the government’s messaging on safe flying, the department sent a list of reasons explaining why the risk of transmission is “relatively low when travelling on a plane compared with other enclosed settings.”

In separate but similar emails, spokespeople Sau Sau Liu and Cybelle Morin pointed to ventilation systems on board that use HEPA filters, limited interactions between passengers, mandatory face coverings, health and temperature checks before boarding as well as a design promoting isolated airflow.

University of Toronto infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness doesn’t accept the government’s safe label.

“There’s no question that when you put lots of people in a tight airspace, you’ve got risk. And are airplanes safe enough given that people are wearing masks? And given that there’s ventilation and filtering? The answer is no.”

“They’re not crazy unsafe, that is, you’re not having situations where everyone’s getting sick, but they’re not risk free.”

Furness has been calling for a clear definition of essential travel. He believes more regulations and education would make things safer, including adopting point-of-entry quarantine.

“I think Transport Canada has not been stepping up to its obligations. I think Health Canada has not tried to bridge the gap.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office declined multiple requests for an interview for this story.

The Public Health Agency of Canada tells Global News it is not aware of any confirmed cases of in-flight passenger-to-passenger transmission in this country.

The flight attendant who spoke to Global News is concerned passengers may be concealing symptoms to get home to Canada – seeing much less coughing on board than pre-COVID-19 days.

“I’ve seen people that have not looked too good, but everybody has been pretty good at keeping a low profile these days on the plane.”

Transport Canada says trying to hide symptoms could count as “non-compliance,” potentially resulting in a fine of up to $5,000 per passenger and $25,000 for an air carrier.

Canada’s main union representing flight attendants is “keenly aware of the issue of symptomatic travelers attempting to cover up symptoms.” But CUPE says it’s focused on rapid testing and better screening, rather than point-of-entry quarantine.

“In our view, the solution to this problem is not to force all travelers to quarantine at one of the four international airports remaining in Canada; the solution is to drastically improve screening at out-of-country stations before symptomatic travelers embark on the first leg of their journey,” said senior communications officer Hugh Pouliot.

CUPE says approximately 100 of about 15,000 flight attendants it represents have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s impossible to say for sure where all cases were acquired.

The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) did not answer regarding its specific position on point-of-entry quarantine, but sent a statement saying it’s pushing for the federal government to move forward with rapid testing and away from “travel imposed quarantine measures.”

“Travellers must have the ability to return to their home or final locations, and significant health measures are in place at Canada’s airports and on Canadian airlines to ensure that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft remains significantly low,” said NACC president and CEO Mike McNaney.

Data from the department shows tens of thousands of people are taking connecting flights once landing in Canada from another country.

Between April and July 2020, an estimated 351,000 passengers arrived in Canada on an international flight, and about 67,000 of those passengers continued to a domestic flight.

July was the busiest month after a quieter spring, with an estimated 154,000 passengers arriving in Canada that month, and 33,000 of those passengers continuing on to a domestic flight.

There are some interesting notes on the data and reporting that suggest Transport Canada does not have an exact picture of the number of people taking connecting flights once landing in Canada. Transport Canada advised Global News all numbers it provided are “estimates only.”

Its data comes from the International Air Transport Association, which bases numbers on tickets purchased, rather than the number of people clearing airport customs via the Canada Border Services Agency.

A lot can change from the time a person buys an airline ticket to the time they land, especially in the pandemic when plans were frequently cancelled or changed.

During the course of reporting for this story, Global News asked Transport Canada clarification questions about how to accurately report on the data. Transport Canada twice refused to answer questions on the data its own department provided, and sent us to Statistics Canada.

StatCan gathers passenger data from a different source (CBSA) and provided Global News different numbers. In the month with the biggest difference, July, the IATA/Transport Canada numbers showed about 39,000 more passengers travelling to Canada than CBSA/StatCan.

Transport Canada also admitted to first sending Global News incorrect numbers – accidentally calculating departure numbers as well as arrivals, “which inflated the final results.” This only became clear once Global News pushed for answers in the face of department stonewalling. The numbers included in this story are the ones Transport Canada since corrected.

Global News is using the Transport Canada numbers provided for this story, rather than Statistics Canada, because StatCan had no data on connecting passengers from international flights. Transport Canada says the two sets of data are “fundamentally different” and “should not be compared directly.”

A Transport Canada spokesperson told Global News the department uses both Statistics Canada and IATA material in its own work.

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