Passengers on 30 flights in Canada potentially exposed to COVID-19

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TORONTO – A total of 30 flights have landed at a Canadian airport in the past two weeks with at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 on board, but passengers on those planes may not have been directly informed of their risk of exposure. The federal government reported nine domestic flights and 21 international flights departing from cities in Europe, India, Mexico, the Middle East and several US cities.

Thirteen of the international flights landed in Toronto, five in Vancouver, one in Calgary and two in Montreal. The most recent, an Aero Mexico flight from Mexico City, landed in Montreal on July 18.

Passengers are not informed directly by federal public health authorities to get tested, although the government acknowledges that those on board affected flights “may have been exposed to COVID-19”.

He goes on to say, “Being aware of the risk can help you take the necessary steps to protect your health and the health of others around you.”

But the government website warns that its list is “not exhaustive” and is based on information from “provincial and territorial health authorities, international health authorities and public websites.”

The government website reminds those returning to Canada to quarantine for 14 days, the virus’s supposed incubation period, whether or not they show symptoms. Passengers are also required to provide contact information upon arrival, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reiterated to CTVNews.ca in response to questions about contact tracing for travelers.

Airlines say they are working with public health authorities, who are responsible for any notification process. Federal health authorities say these notification protocols are provincial and territorial responsibilities.

Provincially, health authorities in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are also posting flights affected by COVID-19 online, but not in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Alberta, for example, directs users to the federal list. Authorities in the Atlantic provinces notify the public when cases arise. British Columbia health authorities specifically say on their website that international and domestic passengers sitting near a confirmed case of COVID-19 are no longer directly informed of their potential exposure.

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said the failure to institute immediate contact tracing of confirmed cases aboard flights is a “huge blind spot” in Canada’s response to the pandemic.

“Airlines are quite capable of texting you to let you know your flight is delayed,” Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca.

“Transport Canada could pass a regulation tomorrow that if an airline is notified of a case of COVID-19, it must text everyone on that plane.

Transport Canada referred questions from CTVNews.ca to PHAC, which is overseen by Health Canada. The agency said in an email that contact tracing activities are carried out at the local level and led by the provinces and territories. He added that this facilitates the sharing of relevant information between airlines, provinces and territories, as well as with the country from which the infected passenger arrived according to the law.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said contact tracing was the responsibility of health authorities.

“They are determining if contact tracing is necessary and will follow up as they see fit (we assist them by providing passenger information on request),” he wrote in an email in response to questions from CTVNews.ca .

He said a reported theft does not mean that anyone “contracted COVID on the flight or necessarily had it during the flight, only that the individual has recently traveled and has since tested positive for COVID-19. “.

WestJet, which maintains a current account of flights impacted by COVID-19 on its blog, said in an email that it has a strict process and protocol in place to notify crew members who have served on a affected flight as soon as the airline is notified, and who has taken additional steps to help educate the public.

“We understand that we are the only airline to go the extra mile to publish affected flights on our external channels. We are doing this to educate the general public and to help the media help public health officials get this information out as quickly and widely as possible, ”WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell told CTVNews. ca by email.

As of July 16, when the WestJet list was last updated, it listed nine flights in July, but none since July 6.

UNKNOWN AFFECTED LINES

Of the flights reported on the federal government’s website, three domestic and eight international flights indicate the affected lines are unknown. Most of the rest are four to six rows wide.

According to Air Canada and PHAC, health agencies include affected lines based on information collected from the passenger, who may not remember where they sat or may have moved around during the flight. .

Fitzpatrick said passengers who feared exposure to a plane should contact their doctor.

“However, it is important to understand that the incidence of people contracting a communicable disease in flight is very low. As proof, consider what are known as “cluster epidemics”, where a group of people get sick at the same time and in the same place. These are rarely, if ever, related to modes of travel, while you often see reports of outbreaks resulting from funerals, bars, or other gatherings. ”

According to an Air Canada backgrounder, “The reasons for the apparently low rate of in-flight transmission are not fully determined, but are believed to include a combination of lack of face-to-face contact and physical barriers. provided by the seat backs. , as well as the characteristics of the air flow in the cabin. ”

Pre-flight screening, temperature monitoring and mandatory face masks are “also considered effective”.

Joseph Allen, professor of evaluation science at Harvard University, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece in May that the ventilation systems required for airplanes meet the standards for isolation rooms to handle COVID-19 patients recommended by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Allen said that while planes are vectors of diseases that carry infectious people around the world, that doesn’t mean passengers are at risk when they fly with them.

“Billions of people travel by air every year, but there have only been a handful of documented epidemics attributable to airplanes in the past 40 years,” he wrote.

“If planes made you sick, we would expect to see millions of people sick each year from the flights. We haven’t seen it because it’s just not happening.

Furness, the infection control epidemiologist in Toronto, disagrees that thefts are low risk. He says he won’t fly until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.

He was surprised the federal government did not intervene when airlines announced they would resume selling mid-size seats. He said he doesn’t trust the airlines to take care of his health and doesn’t accept that flying is safe.

“I think this is a crazy situation that could lead us to another lockdown.”

With files from Solarina Ho

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