OTTAWA – The company that conducts mandatory COVID-19 testing for people arriving in Canada is preparing to increase the number of trips.
Whether it’s coming this summer, next fall, or next year, he doesn’t know.
But in an exclusive interview with The Star, the Switch Health leadership team expressed little doubt that testing will continue to be part of the travel landscape until one day COVID-19 goes away.
“We don’t have a crystal ball to look at right now, but what we can do is prepare,” said Olga Jilani, Chief Financial Officer of Switch.
Frustration that Canada was not prepared when the federal government implemented mandatory testing for inbound travelers in February has led to an in-depth review of the Toronto-based company.
Switch Health was hired earlier this year by the Public Health Agency of Canada to provide test kits for people crossing overland, perform arrival tests for people landing at Pearson, and manage testing for travelers awaiting quarantine at home.
By the end of April, more than 180 formal complaints about Switch Health had been registered with PHAC. Travelers have also taken to social media to document their difficulties getting tested, waiting times for appointments, or confusion around seeking supervision to take the test.
Two members of the Switch team are expected to face a scorch during a House of Commons committee hearing later this week, after MPs repeatedly raised concerns about Whether the testing regime is robust enough to slow the importation of COVID-19 cases, especially with border restrictions. slacken in the coming months.
Switch insists it’s ready – and very aware of how many travelers rely on it.
“It’s no fun being quarantined,” CEO Dilian Stoyanov said in an interview. “Every day looks like 10, so we want to make sure people get there on time.”
While the company does not dismiss the complaints it has received, it places them in the context of having processed more than 600,000 tests.
Since the mandatory testing came into effect in February, Switch has ramped up operations from a staff of several dozen to a payroll of more than 2,000 full-time, part-time and contract positions.
Wait times for a nurse to supervise a COVID-19 test have dropped from more than an hour to just 16 minutes, a drop attributable to pre-booking appointments and an increase in the number of supervisors.
Data provided to the House of Commons shows that in the first two months of operation, around 17% of test results were not delivered by the end of a person’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.
A policy change in late April to require a second test on the eighth day, not the tenth, now means almost all test results are back on time.
Another issue the company faced in the first few months of the program was how to coordinate the collection of home tests. Initially, pickup capacity was limited on weekends, causing bottlenecks. Then there were the unique realities of Canadian geography. It’s one thing for a quarantined traveler in Toronto to schedule a pickup for their home test. It is quite another thing for someone who lives in a remote outpost in the Yukon or off the coast of British Columbia; for a traveler there, the company had to hire a boat and arrange for the test to be dropped off at a local general store.
The company has partnerships with Purolator and Uber, as well as with local delivery agencies in more remote locations. He has now set up the Saturday mics and is also working on the Sunday mics.
But all of this has happened with travel at only a fraction of what it was before the pandemic. Since January 1, approximately 3.9 million people have arrived in Canada by land or air, compared to 94 million people during the same period in 2019.
Those who enter the country now are subject to testing and quarantine and must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents; if not, they must be on an approved list of exceptions, including farm workers, some international students, or people coming to work on the COVID-19 response.
Although the number of COVID-19 cases linked specifically to international travel is less than 2%, Jilani pointed out that 2,500 of the 6,500 positive cases Switch’s tests found were discovered after people were already in quarantine for several days.
“We think everyone agrees that in that capacity – protecting Canadians, protecting communities – 2,500 people who test positive is a significant number,” she said.
Stoyanov said the company is putting in the required capacity when the number of trips start to increase, as they will, and that the work is done in part by using previous trip data and migration patterns to estimate what this trip will look like.
“We hope that we will come to a reopening,” Stoyanov said. “It’s about reopening the economy.”
With files from The Canadian Press