An arrivals and departures information screen is seen at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The chief executive of Atlantic Canada's largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers "sooner rather than later," as an added measure to combat the province's third wave of the virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Halifax airport CEO hopes for more on-site COVID testing ‘sooner rather than later’

HALIFAX — The chief executive of Atlantic Canada’s largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers “sooner rather than later,” as an added measure to combat Nova Scotia’s third wave of the pandemic.

The Halifax International Airport Authority first proposed the testing system at Stanfield International Airport in January. The current system, which has been used for temporary foreign workers, sends the incoming passengers to a designated area for testing before they leave the building.

But Airport Authority President Joyce Carter said she’d like to see that program expanded to all new arrivals, adding the airport remains eager to set up a system where incoming travellers could be notified rapidly if they have tested positive for the virus.

Under the province’s regulations, most arriving passengers — including rotational workers coming from the Alberta oil patch — are currently required to quarantine for two weeks and to take tests during that period.

But Carter said testing at the airport would be convenient, potentially quicker, and add a further layer of protection.

“We’re ready to go. We could be up and running on a day’s notice. We’d like to see it sooner rather than later,” she said in a Saturday telephone interview.

Carter also noted rapid testing methods could tell passengers whether they have tested positive before leaving the building.

As of Sunday, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada website, Nova Scotia has used about 81,000 of the rapid tests earmarked for the province, and has allocated over 700,000 more.

Tim Houston, the leader of Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservatives, has questioned why the province doesn’t move more quickly towards more border-point rapid testing, particularly at the airport.

He issued a news release on Friday noting the large number of rapid tests available, arguing they “could be immediately deployed to the airport.”

A spokeswoman for Liberal Premier Iain Rankin provided an April 23 statement from the Department of Health stating the province remained “in active discussions” with the airport about options for additional testing at the site.

Carter confirmed there have been talks, but said she had not heard anything further from public health in the past few days. She acknowledged officials are extremely busy, as the province logged record numbers of COVID-19 infections over the past week.

The airport has also suggested rapid COVID-19 tests could be conducted on-site for airport campus employees and the general public from nearby communities during times when the testing facility is not being used for arriving passengers.

A proposal states the facility could contribute the testing space, layout design, queuing equipment and supplies, along with its expertise in passenger processing and flow.

Testing has already been underway at airports for arriving temporary foreign workers, as required by federal rules, including both PCR and rapid antigen testing.

Carter said current efforts have demonstrated the airport’s ability to handle testing flow efficiently.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, said in a recent interview that COVID-19 variants spreading through the province are notable for transmitting making residents sick more quickly.

The medical specialist, who has also been one of the lead organizers for Nova Scotia’s rapid testing regime, has noted the province’s network of asymptomatic, rapid test sites have proved crucial in the last week.

Asked about testing at the airport, she said the priority right now is to focus on the battle to control community spread within the province’s borders.

But testing at the border points, including airports, where people could import the virus will be helpful in the future, she added.

“I’m all for doing lots more testing after we get this (community spread) under control,” she said.

Meanwhile, the airports throughout Atlantic Canada, as with the rest of the country, have seen a drastic fall in revenue.

Carter said in Halifax the passenger flow is between five and 10 per cent of volumes recorded prior to the pandemic.

The traffic flow could fall even further this week as further travel restrictions take effect.

Last Friday, Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang announced stricter border controls, saying “public health staff are overwhelmed and we need to get things under control.”

The border will close to travelers from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador as of 8 a.m. on Monday, and rotational workers will be required to completely isolate themselves from their families for 14 days and attend mandatory COVID-19 testing.

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