COVID-19

Nearly A Month Into COVID-19 Emergency, International Travellers Arrived Unchecked at Victoria International

After arriving from Turkey earlier this week, local woman tells The Capital she encountered no measures whatsoever to enforce self-isolation

By Tori Marlan
April 18, 2020
COVID-19

Nearly A Month Into COVID-19 Emergency, International Travellers Arrived Unchecked at Victoria International

After arriving from Turkey earlier this week, local woman tells The Capital she encountered no measures whatsoever to enforce self-isolation

By Tori Marlan
Apr 18, 2020
COVID-19

Nearly A Month Into COVID-19 Emergency, International Travellers Arrived Unchecked at Victoria International

After arriving from Turkey earlier this week, local woman tells The Capital she encountered no measures whatsoever to enforce self-isolation

By Tori Marlan
April 18, 2020
Nearly A Month Into COVID-19 Emergency, International Travellers Arrived Unchecked at Victoria International
Victoria International Airport has not only been empty of passengers of late, but also any measures to enforce provincial quarantine orders (James MacDonald for The Capital).

Even after BC announced stricter measures to compel returning travellers to self-isolate, a local woman coming home from Turkey told The Capital that she arrived at Victoria International Airport on Monday without any additional scrutiny.

Last week, BC put into place new measures for returning international travellers requiring them to  submit a self-isolation plan for provincial review, regardless of their point of entry. The plans would need to explain where the travellers would be self-isolating, how they would get to that location, and how they would obtain essential items such as food, medicine, and cleaning supplies. The province also announced that the government would begin helping people execute their plans on April 10, by providing accommodations for those who needed them and by following up with travellers to ensure that they had  everything they needed. 

“By supporting people through a self-isolation plan after international travel, we will keep people safe and help flatten the curve,” Premier John Horgan said.

Ibrahim Caynab found the April 8 announcement comforting. His wife, B., who asked not to be fully named, had spent the last month and a half in Turkey, visiting her ill father. After her original flight home was cancelled due to the pandemic, the Canadian government arranged for her to fly to Toronto on April 13.  

Turkey currently has 74,193 confirmed cases of COVID-19; more than 1,600 people have died. The couple also lives in a home that is at particularly high risk for the disease. Three of the couple’s four children—who range in age from 7 to 13—have asthma, and a fifth child, a nephew, lives with them. The couple agreed that it would be best for B. to remain outside the family home until they knew that she was healthy.

Once she was back in North America, the couple began to worry. B. breezed through customs after telling a border services officer she felt fine, and then headed to Victoria, via Calgary, without any further contact with government officials. She says that she was never asked for a self-isolation plan or given instructions on how to submit one herself. When she landed in Victoria, she quickly realized that she was on her own: that no help or guidance from the province would be forthcoming and that she was free to pick up her bags and walk out of the airport without having any contact with provincial representatives.

“I did not really want to come to home,” she says. “I told my husband, 'Don't pick me up, I'll figure it out.’"

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The couple agreed that she should remain at the airport while they tried to bring her presence to the attention of provincial officials. “I was hoping I would find more information on where to go or how they can assist me,” she says.

For the next five hours, she says, she and Caynab looked for answers. They called 811, 211, and the toll-free number provided on the province’s returning travellers website. Caynab says the person who answered the toll-free number gave him information that conflicted with what he’d learned on the website and that when he pointed that out, the person said she’d call him back but didn’t. At one point, he says, he told an 811 nurse that he was considering bringing his wife straight to a hotel, but she told him not to—that the hotel would need to be designated for quarantine. “We couldn’t find help anywhere,” he says. “We were exhausted. We gave up. I had to bring her home.”

B. is now holed up in their bedroom, trying to keep her distance from the rest of her family. “My youngest, he was shaking because he couldn’t hug me,” she says, adding that the stress and fear are getting to her. Like three of her children, she has asthma.“My chest hurts,” she says, “but I don’t know: Is it in my mind?”

Caynab, a correctional officer at William Head Institution, can’t go back to work for 14 days: “We’re all in quarantine now.”  

If B. eluded BC’s new requirements for returning international travellers—despite actively seeking to comply with them—it’s likely that many other travellers last week did too. 

A flowchart prepared by the provincial government shows that any asymptomatic travellers returning to Canada through Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary would have to submit self-isolation plans after they land in BC. But for a week after these new measures went into effect, there was no way to do that. If you arrived in the province via a connecting flight through another province, you essentially arrived in BC as a domestic traveller. Under those circumstances, a COVID-19 Joint Information Centre spokesperson acknowledged, travellers like B. would have needed to submit the self-isolation plan online.

A BC government flowchart illustrating the process by which travellers are supposed to self-isolate.

But that loophole, he pointed out, has now closed. On April 15, the federal government began implementing a re-entry plan for international travellers similar to that of BC. Everyone returning to Canada from abroad—no matter which province they land in—now needs to have a plan in place for self-isolation or quarantine and to demonstrate to government officials that they have access to basic necessities. “Travellers who do not have an appropriate place in which to isolate or quarantine themselves must go to a place designated by the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada,” according to a statement by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

According to the COVID-19 Joint Information Centre, support is still available for travellers like B. who arrived after the provincial measures went into effect but before the federal ones did. They just need to fill out self-isolation plans online.  

B., it turns out, didn’t actually need any plans. A few days after returning from Turkey, her employer, Island Health, pulled her out of isolation. As a care aide for seniors in an independent living facility, she’s considered an essential worker. 

Although Victoria International Airport has severely curtailed operations, it continues to receive about four flights per day, mostly from passengers connecting at Vancouver, which continues to see international arrivals. B.’s experience has Caynab wondering how many of them arrived last week carrying the virus, and whether they’re getting the help they need. “There wasn’t enough information,” he says. “And some people cannot self-isolate at home.” 

tori@capnews.ca