What my bad handwriting revealed about our COVID-19 quarantine system

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Arriving in Toronto from Munich, tired and hungry after a long flight last May, I filled out the Public Health Agency of Canada contact form in such bad handwriting that even my mother wouldn’t have it. recognized.

My sorry calligraphy sparked a series of events that would lead me to discover that federal officials at airports did little to verify the personal details they gathered from inbound travelers – the same information as they later used to track and enforce the mandatory two-week quarantine for those returning to Canada.

In fact, when I asked the health agency how many travelers were unreachable, they said about 70,000 people had not even given a phone number.

This raises questions about the effectiveness of enforcing quarantine in Canada if, at the heart of the matter, the very fact of identifying travelers who need to self-isolate depends so much on their own honesty.

The fact that information provided by travelers is not cross-checked with immigration records from the Canada Border Services Agency also indicates a wider lack of intergovernmental cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story, from my perspective, begins with a phone call from the health agency five days after I arrived in Canada. I confirmed that I was in fact in quarantine, and the online official appeared satisfied. It was pretty standard.

One aspect that stood out, however, was that she mispronounced my name by reading an N as well as a W. A subsequent email from the Ontario Ministry of Health misspelled my name exactly the same. the way the federal employee had said it.

Such an oddly specific error, I thought. I just had to know why and how. So I made requests under federal and provincial privacy laws, which allow anyone to search for their personal information held by governments.

The health agency records I received show that in the form I filled out at the airport my N looked very clearly like a W.

I also seemed to have written “Challes St.” instead of “Charles St.” for my address. The files show that the misread of my handwriting was entered into the health agency’s system as is.

My request included “all correspondence concerning me, whether internal or external”. What I received showed no evidence of contact between the health agency and border services. In fact, the border service records reflect little more than the fact that I arrived in Canada.

Likewise, the Ontario Ministry of Health records show little more than the fact that the ministry had received my erroneous information from federal authorities. Spokesman Christian Hasse said the ministry was “aware” that federal data “sometimes contains inaccuracies.”

The point is, however, that the border service entry records show the correct information to me. It was captured electronically from my passport, after an officer examined it and verified that I was in fact the rightful holder – little margin for error.

Had the border service played a larger role in collecting quarantine information, it could have gone a long way in ensuring its accuracy.

Of course, it was in May. Enforcement of the quarantine has changed rapidly since March, when Canada announced the measure and also banned most foreigners – measures also adopted by countries around the world that experts say are helping contain the spread of the global pandemic.

Since last Saturday, air travelers will have to provide their information electronically, either online or via a mobile application.

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Andre Gagnon, a spokesperson for the health agency who also commented on the border service, said in an email that the new measure “will make the verification process more efficient.” Hasse from Ontario said, “The province is happy.

In addition, due to travel restrictions, the latest Statistics Canada data shows just one million international arrivals in September, down almost 90% from the same period last year. The federal government has said most travelers are essential workers exempt from quarantine.

Still, for those in need of the quarantine, Gagnon described a few updates other than how to key in to give out personal information.

When asked how a potential check would go for the information provided, Gagnon said border officers would only confirm “that the information has been completed” and that accuracy is “the responsibility of the traveler.”

I asked what the health agency would have done if, during follow-up to make sure I was in quarantine, they found out that I had given false information unrelated to my real identity. How could the federal agency even know which traveler was dishonest?

Gagnon responded only by citing the maximum sentence of six months in jail and $ 750,000 in fines and said, “At airports and land crossings, travelers may be selected for secondary inspection”, to which I did not. have not been submitted.

In the past, the health agency has repeatedly stated that when officials track the arrivals of travelers to the country, those arrested in quarantine number only tens of millions. But it’s unclear how many, if any, were not identified at all in the first place because they gave false information.

Gagnon said whether the health agency passes on details of unreachable travelers – such as the 70,000 who did not provide a phone number – what is ultimately done by local authorities varies and they “may not always. report on results ”.

The latest data shows just 26 cases associated with international travel for the first half of November, or 0.2% of all infections, up from 50% in January. But these are known cases, cases in which travelers are reliably identified.

Figures from health agencies show that just over half of the estimated 350,000 cases in Canada reported even basic details about the circumstances of the infection. Even of these, over 66,000 said they had been exposed in Canada to an unknown source.

How many cases are linked to travelers falling through the cracks, either through inadequate verification of their information or simply through their own dishonesty?

Maybe a lot. Maybe none. But the government does not know.

Ethan Lou is the author of the new book Field Notes from a Pandemic and a former Star reporter

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