COVID-19 Pandemic: Consideration of Government Response in Committee of the Whole

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Senator Munson: I have two questions for the two ministers. Thank you for what you’re doing. We know you’re trying your best. But a CBC story just this morning said:

Canadians desperate to return home from abroad in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic are easily circumventing air travel screening . . . .

And they talk about facts in this story.

Minister, China almost flattened the curve. And then people who returned home easily probably circumvented whatever they’re trying to do, with people coming back to their country. How can you stop this? What other measures do you have to make sure that the person who gets on that plane is not carrying the disease back to this country?

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Mr. Blair: I’ll begin and turn to my colleague to speak from the health perspective. We have put a number of measures for international travellers in place. The first line of defence is the air carrier itself. We have issued directions to air carriers who are flying into Canada that they have a duty of care and responsibility to check for symptomatic passengers boarding their planes. Once a symptomatic passenger is on the plane, they can put other people at risk.

It’s not merely an issue of asking the questions because we do know overwhelmingly the majority of Canadians are very responsible and conscientious and will tell the truth but some will not. We’ve asked the airlines and their flight crews to make observations and to identify people who appear to be symptomatic. This is identified to our officials before the plane lands. Those individuals are met right at the gate and separated from the rest of the arriving passengers and directed towards appropriate health interventions. We also require that everyone acknowledge a question. They are asked if they are symptomatic. They have to provide an answer. They are also asked and told to enter into a 14-day period of self-isolation. They have to acknowledge that.

We have officers roving through the areas of the passenger arrival areas to make observations around symptomology and to make references to refer people who are symptomatic into the appropriate health interventions. So we are not conducting health examinations at those sites, but we are screening them on arrival for being symptomatic. We are also giving them direction and instructions on the measures they must take in order to prevent the spread of the illness.

Senator Munson: To the Minister of Health, why aren’t we having health examinations? I have travelled in Africa many times, sometimes they will take your temperature as you walk up. This is before any pandemics. I think this is a very serious situation.

Ms. Hajdu: Thank you, senator. First of all, let me say this is a very sneaky virus. I mean, the challenge with the virus is that it can present as very mild without a temperature at all. The variety of symptomology depends on the individual and it is extremely difficult to detect illness. Sometimes people have such mild symptoms that they may not even know they have the illness. That has been the challenge with this virus from the very beginning. The best evidence we have is, in fact, drawn from the time of SARS, where some of you may remember there was a use of thermometers at the border. Not one case was detected using that technology.

How we use our resources in a time like this is critical. Of course we have Public Health Agency quarantine officers at all of the airports. We’ve tripled up on staff to support CBSA. When CBSA staff identify someone with symptoms, those people are isolated from other travellers, asked additional questions, funnelled to public health if necessary. That work is happening.

We are obviously concerned about people coming back to Canada who are not taking this seriously, the need to quarantine for 14 days, the need to stay in isolation for 14 days. That is why as of midnight tonight that will be mandatory for all returning travellers.

This is especially true for people coming from countries that have minimized the issue of this virus. We know many people are coming from winter homes, for example, that may have been hearing different kinds of news around the severity of this illness and are not taking this seriously. As of tonight it will be mandatory for anyone returning to the country to isolate for 14 days under the Quarantine Act. They are also not to isolate in the same home where there is a vulnerable individual and not to take public transportation to get to that place. The Public Health Agency of Canada will be supporting people who are in the circumstance of not having a place to stay and/or not having transportation that is private.

We need Canadians who are returning to this country to take this seriously. Even if they are asymptomatic when they get off the plane, it is extremely important that Canadians understand for the safety of their families and communities that they take the public health advice and now requirement to stay at home for 14 days. That means not visiting friends and family.

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