Why can’t we just get tested instead of isolating after international travel? Your COVID-19 questions answered

We’re answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca, and we’ll answer as many as we can. We publish a selection of answers online and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network. So far, we’ve received more than 53,000 emails from all corners of the country.

These days more of us are travelling — sometimes between provinces and even on airplanes. Here are some of the questions we’ve been getting about travel.

Why can’t we just get tested instead of quarantining after international travel?

That’s a good question. 

Currently, people who cross into Canada must quarantine for 14 days to make sure they don’t spread the coronavirus, whether they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or not. So, why can’t we just test people and skip the time-consuming isolation period?

Matthew Cheng, an infectious diseases doctor at McGill University Health Centre, says there are two main reasons:

Also, testing too soon after exposure to the coronavirus, before viral loads are high enough to be reliably measured, can result in a false negative. That means anyone who was exposed on the plane, for example, wouldn’t be expected to test positive.

Cheng noted that the quarantine is intended to reduce risk from people who may have caught COVID-19 either on their trip or on their way back to Canada.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam recently indicated that officials are looking into whether it’s practical to test people when they enter Canada instead of requiring them to quarantine.

However, she offered no timeline and stressed that more research is required before any changes are introduced.

In the meantime, Air Canada is planning to start a voluntary testing trial for some passengers to help persuade the federal government to end strict quarantine rules. You can read more about that here.

WATCH | Airport study examines efficacy of 14-day quarantines:

Air Canada is asking international travellers arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to volunteer for a COVID-19 test as part of a study to determine the effectiveness of 14-day quarantines. The airline industry hopes to find a way to replace lengthy quarantines with testing. 1:58

I have a connecting flight. Will I be allowed to leave the airport?

Travel is another one of those things that COVID-19 restrictions complicate things we used to take for granted, like turning a layover into a mini holiday or visit.

Teressa A. wrote us to ask if she and her husband would be allowed to get a hotel in Toronto while awaiting their connecting flight to Prince Edward Island from the Caribbean.

Connecting travellers are only allowed to leave the secure area of the airport during their connection if the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) permits the travellers to enter the country, as is the case for Canadian citizens. You can read the CBSA’s guidance for returning Canadians here.

In that case, according to Health Canada, yes, they can leave to stay at a hotel as long as they are not symptomatic. However, they:

  • Must wear a mask or face covering and avoid contact with others while in transit.
  • Must practise physical distancing and remain in the vehicle as much as possible.
  • Must not use shared spaces in the hotel, such as restaurants, gyms and pools.

Symptomatic travellers can’t travel onward unless they use private transportation to get to a place of isolation. “If they can’t get to their location, we will hold them in a federal designated quarantine site unless they can make alternate suitable arrangements,” Health Canada said in an email.

WATCH | How flying during COVID-19 has changed:

WestJet says it will remove passengers from flights who consistently refuse to wear a mask (without a medical exemption) and ban them from flying for a year. As CEO Ed Sims explains, the tough new stance is part of a wider strategy designed to keep passengers safe and flying as the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes air travel. 9:23

Do I have to self-isolate in Manitoba or one of the Atlantic Canada provinces if I am driving through?

Provinces that require travellers from out-of-province and not within their “travel bubble” to self isolate typically have exceptions for those that are driving through without stopping. 

Manitoba requires travellers from out-of-province to self-isolate for 14 days. But those driving through do not have to do this if they are not planning to stop in Manitoba, the government of Manitoba says.

New Brunswick is part of the Atlantic Canada travel bubble, and travellers en route to other Atlantic provinces often pass through. Those driving through will be screened and will have to demonstrate they are authorized to travel through to their province of destination. But if they do that successfully, they can go directly to their destination.

WATCH | No signs of Atlantic Canada bubble bursting:

Like an extended family, the four Atlantic provinces have walled themselves in, creating measures to restrict outsiders and COVID-19 cases. So far, it’s worked and there doesn’t seem to be much of a rush to burst the Atlantic bubble. 5:09

Why am I seeing so many U.S. plates if the land border is closed? 

Canada and the United States agreed to close their shared land border to non-essential traffic starting on March 21 to help stop the spread of the virus. The agreement, which is reviewed every 30 days, will be extended until at least Sept. 21. 

Since then, a small number of fines have been doled out to Americans skirting Canada’s travel rules. However, the CBSA points out that there are many legitimate reasons why Americans may have entered the country.

“Simply seeing a U.S.-plated vehicle or boat is not a reason to suspect someone of suspicious cross-border activity,” said CBSA spokesperson Mark Stuart in an email.

Here are some of the reasons you might be seeing U.S. plates:

  • Back in June, the Canadian government loosened its border restrictions to allow American visitors with immediate family in Canada to enter the country. These visiting family members must provide proof that they are staying in Canada for at least 15 days and that they will self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
  • Meanwhile, Canadian citizens, dual citizens and permanent residents in the U.S. can also freely leave and re-enter the country, though they too must self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.
  • The land border also remains open to some people making trips for essential reasons, such as for work or school. And then there are Canadians who have cars with U.S. plates, some of whom say they’ve faced harassment from others who assume they’re not supposed to be here.

According to the CBSA, which tracks numbers on a weekly basis, just over 4.4 million Canadians and foreigners have entered Canada by land or air since March 23. The numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to pre-pandemic travel. 

The agency reports that between March 22 and Sept. 2, it denied entry to more than 18,000 people trying to cross from the U.S. by land or air, because they wanted to visit for non-essential reasons, such as shopping or sightseeing. 

You can read more about that here. And you can find more information about the U.S.-Canada border on the Canadian government’s website here.

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