Northern Ontario airline testing all passengers for COVID-19 before boarding

By Willow Fiddler
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

People flying to more than a dozen remote First Nations in Northern Ontario are being screened for COVID-19 with rapid antigen testing prior to boarding as one airline ramps up its safety protocols on passenger flights.

North Star Air provides passenger, cargo and charter service to 54 remote locations in Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavat. It said the Ontario Ministry of Transportation is covering the costs of the testing for eight weeks in Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout while a private third party is financing the contracts for nurses to administer them.

While passenger flights in the remote North have been limited since the pandemic, people still travel out of the communities for essential reasons such as medical appointments and emergencies such as funerals. Essential workers such as health care workers, police and contractors also rely on airlines like North Star Air to get into the communities.

First Nations such as Eabametoong in Northern Ontario have had strict measures in place since the pandemic, requiring anyone entering to have the prior approval of the leadership before getting on a flight. Once they’ve arrived, people are required to immediately isolate and have proof of a negative test result within 72 hours. Community pandemic teams ensure people have a safe place to isolate and essentials such as food and medications.

Councillor Andrew Yesno from Eabametoong said the rapid testing at North Star Air is an effort the community supports; it is helpful for passengers who can’t book a flight ahead of time and for essential workers who have to fly in for emergencies such as diesel generator maintenance and water treatment plant issues.

Results for the rapid antigen tests come back in 15 minutes.

Mr. Yesno said passengers who screen negative for COVID-19 are still required to follow community protocols, including getting a follow-up test days later.

Jeff Stout, president and chief executive officer of North Star Air, said even with stringent pandemic protocols in place, they were still having instances of positive cases on the aircrafts. He said it is disruptive to the airline, which is an essential service in the remote North.

He recalled one flight in January when a passenger who departed from Thunder Bay received an e-mail with a positive test result during a stop in another location before getting to their destination. All passengers and crew on the route that was scheduled to stop in a few communities had to isolate, including a family who were on their way to a funeral.

“That’s the last thing you want to have happen when you’re in a moment of grief is that you have to be held a hostage in a hotel for 14 days,” Mr. Stout said.

He said the airline expects about 175 passengers a week to be screened with the rapid testing in Thunder Bay and about 75 passengers in Sioux Lookout.

Mr. Stout said any positive results will be forwarded to the local health unit for confirmed laboratory testing and the passenger will be denied boarding.

He said they are working with the communities to ensure passengers aren’t left without proper supports to isolate and get follow-up testing. He added that passengers won’t be charged for rebooking flights in the event of a positive screening result.

Mr. Stout said they’re trying to get assistance from sources such as Transport Canada’s remote air carrier subsidy program to keep the rapid testing as part of its regular screening.

Transport Canada announced in January it was contributing more than $11-million for air services in remote Ontario for July to December of last year and that Ontario has invested an additional $4-million for remote airports to operate safely during the pandemic, on top of regular operational funding.