Vancouve International Airpost COVID testing

Vancouver INternational AIrport’s COVID testing project

By Hannah Scott, Richmond Sentinel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After announcing a COVID-19 testing pilot project last month, Vancouver International Airport is almost ready to put the plan into action.

The project is a collaboration between the airport (YVR) and WestJet, and also involves the University of British Columbia as a research partner. After developing and reviewing the program, it will be available to passengers starting in early November.

A voluntary test

“The test is a voluntary test that will be for people from the Lower Mainland, who are flying WestJet, that want to volunteer and help us test the rapid antigen tests that are available today,” says Robyn McVicker, YVR’s vice-president of operations and maintenance.

Rapid antigen tests—which test for the presence of a specific viral antigen, or foreign substance that activates an immune response—return results in about 15 minutes, according to the Centres for Disease Control. McVicker says people who test positive must then confirm their result via a PCR test, the “standard” COVID-19 test that tends to involve a nasopharyngeal swab. YVR is working with lab partners to be able to do the PCR test right in the airport, before tests are sent to the lab for review.

How a rapid test could function

“For us at YVR, the most important thing that we are trying to think about is the science and the confidence,” she says.

The screening pilot program helps provide data to the government on how a rapid test could function in an airport environment, or any similar environment, says McVicker. She explains the pilot project has two goals: gauging how well a rapid antigen test works when used on asymptomatic people, and establishing the success of the testing process, which could then be used in places like schools.

Testing at other airports

Other Canadian airports are taking on related initiatives. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport conducts a test for passengers arriving in the country on Air Canada flights. And at Calgary International Airport, passengers arriving on international flights can take a test that may allow them to reduce their quarantine period. McVicker says that project is being monitored by other provinces as a potential future initiative, if it is successful in Alberta.

“We have been so appreciative of working with our provincial health authorities—they are certainly leaders across the board in how they’ve managed COVID and how they’ve provided strong leadership for our province,” she adds.

65,00 to 75,000 people a day

The new project is an exciting one for YVR, which continues to experience lower than normal passenger volumes. At this time of year, McVicker says there are typically 65 to 75 thousand people a day coming through the airport. But this year, that number has dropped to anywhere between six and 10 thousand.

“We’re just trying to stay flexible,” says McVicker. “Our job is to make sure that those who do travel are safe and feel confident about what they’re going to experience at the airport.”

She says many recent travellers are international students, as well as some leisure travel and people visiting family members—but business travel has been limited. This may point to the shift in the business industry from in-person meeting at conferences and events to a potential virtual era.

Vendors in the airport that have been open have found more success recently, although the traffic volume is lower.

“The areas that are still open have been doing pretty well,” says McVicker. “It’s not where it should be, but it’s keeping (the businesses) afloat.”

She adds that many businesses have found success with pre-packaged items that people can bring with them—although eating and drinking on airplanes is more challenging than normal, with mandatory mask requirements. McVicker says people must take their mask off, have a sip or a bite, and then put their mask back on.

But she recently took a flight herself, and notes that staff don’t always get the opportunity to test the things they put in place. Her impression of the flight: “I’ve never seen such a clean plane in my life.”

Top photo credit: Vancouver International Airport will begin its COVID-19 testing pilot project, a partnership with WestJet and the University of British Columbia, early next month – Photo by Hannah Scott

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