Ottawa funds COVID-19 PCR testing for hundreds of thousands of travelers. Is it worth it?

When David Frid of Gananoque, Ontario, received a mandatory government-funded COVID-19 PCR test at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Jan. 1, he said it seemed like a waste of money.

Frid believed his chances of testing positive were slim because he had already tested negative after a pre-departure PCR test in Mexico before flying home. He also argues that testing travelers on arrival is pointless, because the Omicron variant has already spread across Canada.

“I can’t imagine how much money and resources they have put into this,” said Frid, whose arrival test was negative. “It’s a total waste.”

Some medical experts also question Ottawa’s pre-arrival testing program, arguing that instead of testing thousands of travelers daily, those resources could be better used to combat the rising Omicron variant on the home front.

Currently, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are rising to worrying levels in some counties and many symptomatic Canadians are no longer able to access PCR testing.

Traveler David Frid of Gananoque, Ontario, returned from Mexico on January 1. He said it seemed a waste of money to get a COVID-19 PCR test paid for by the Canadian government upon his return. (submitted by David Frid)

“What’s really clear is that COVID is ubiquitous and travel is not the main source of its spread,” said Dr. David Carr, a professor of emergency medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Toronto.

“Having people repeat their PCR [test] upon arrival, it diverts resources from where they could be better spent.”

Government ramps up pre-arrival tests

Before arriving in Canada, international travelers must pay for their own molecular (such as PCR) test and show a negative result.

The tests now being questioned will add to that, upon arrival. All unvaccinated travelers must undergo a PCR test on arrival and those who are fully vaccinated must take one if randomly selected.

Last month, the government began ramping up testing of fully vaccinated travelers to the point where it now has the capacity to test more than 20,000 arrivals per day.

Ottawa pays for all arrival tests and has not yet disclosed the cost of the program.

While the Omicron variant is on the rise across Canada, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Thursday the government will continue its commitment to mass arrival testing.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that there are as few imports of COVID-19 and Omicron cases across the border as possible,” he said at a news conference.

According to the most recent government dataOf the more than 104,596 vaccinated travelers tested after entering Canada during the week of Dec. 19 to Dec. 25, just over two percent tested positive. Of the more than 19,154 unvaccinated travelers tested that week, three percent tested positive.

Meanwhile, Omicron cases have soared across Canada, pushing the COVID-19 test positivity rate above 20 percent in several provinces. In Alberta and Manitoba, the rate has risen to nearly or above 40 percent.

The demand for COVID-19 PCR tests is so high that many provinces have restricted those tests to certain people, such as health professionals and those considered to be at high risk and symptomatic.

“It’s crazy to think that if you go on a weekend trip to Florida, you’re going to get a PCR [test]”But if you have a cough, cold, and fever and you’re 60 years old,” you may not qualify, Carr said.

“I’d like to see the personnel we use to detect travelers – as a screening tool – used and deployed to pop-ups and places where people with symptoms can get tested.”

VIEW | Experts doubt travel arrival tests

Experts doubt the usefulness of PCR testing at airports

Medical experts question the usefulness of screening air travelers for COVID-19 using a PCR test, arguing that testing resources would be better spent elsewhere. 1:59

dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ontario, also suggests that the government should re-deploy its pre-arrival testing resources. But instead of focusing on widespread domestic testing, he said the funds could go to healthcare staff, vaccine campaigns and treatments for COVID-19.

“I think they have a lot more yield now than border testing,” he said. “We just need to shift our perspective from knowing every case to protecting the people who are most vulnerable.”

When asked about reallocating funds for arrival tests, Duclos replied that these are separate from federal funds supplied to counties to fight COVID-19. He also pointed out that Ottawa is ramping up the number of rapid antigen tests to the provinces, which can be used by those who do not have access to PCR tests.

Get rid of all the PCR testing for travelers?

Carr suggested that rather than requiring international travelers to take two PCR tests, one 72 hours before arrival and one upon arrival, a more efficient use of resources could be to require travelers to take a rapid antigen test just before boarding. of their flight.

While PCR testing may be more accurate, antigen tests are much cheaper, do not need to be sent to a lab, and can provide results in minutes. Travelers sometimes have to wait days for PCR test results.

“If we want to make flying safer, I’d rather fly an airplane with people who have had a rapid test in the last 12 or 24 hours than a PCR in the last 72,” Carr said.

To enter the US, airline passengers only need to take one test – which can be a rapid antigen test – no more than 1 day before departure.

Last week, England removed the requirement for pre-arrival COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated travelers and changed the rules so that they only have to take a quick test after they arrive.

Last month, the Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC News it does not accept rapid antigen tests for travelers because they are less sensitive than molecular tests.

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