BY PAMELA FAYERMAN

Less than one percent of passengers who’ve flown on WestJet flights since the pandemic began have been diagnosed with COVID-19 after they traveled, according to the airline.

And not one WestJet passenger has gotten COVID-19 from another passenger, as far as the airline knows. This, in spite of data regularly posted by health authorities and agencies like the BC Centre for Disease Control showing that there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of passengers who’ve flown while potentially infectious.

The surprising statements about the airline’s success at suppressing transmission so far are contained in a co-written statement by Robyn McVicker, vice president of operations and maintenance at the Vancouver Airport Authority and Billy Nolen, vice president of safety, security, and quality for WestJet. Their verbatim comment reads:

“It is important to note that less than one per cent of passengers who have flown on WestJet’s flights have been diagnosed with COVID-19 post-travel and zero transmission is known to have occurred on board.”

Lauren Stewart, manager of public and media relations for WestJet, said the one percent calculation was arrived at “through the understanding of the number of known affected flights and the number of guests flown on our flights – more than one million people have flown on more than 25,000 WestJet flights since March.

“As mentioned, we have no known cases of transmission occurring on board. Our findings are supported by this research from IATA.”

Here’s another article that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which says that the risk of COVID transmission on planes is lower than in other places like supermarkets and schools.

The statements about the safety of flying on WestJet were contained in an update by the airline and YVR about the rapid testing plans for passengers departing from the Vancouver terminal. I previously wrote about the airline’s plans here.

While the partners in the pilot project aim to have it launch in November, there are numerous details still to work out like what testing platform will be used. That’s a huge hurdle, especially since Health Canada now has 103 COVID-19 applications before it for new testing platforms. Health Canada has faced plenty of criticism for moving at a snail’s pace on such approvals. Many of the tests require labs while others are point of care (rapid) tests that a) reveal whether the passenger has antibodies due to past infection, b) is positive with a current infection or c) is negative. Generally speaking, rapid tests are less sensitive and specific than the nasal swab tests offered by government authorities.

Rapid testing prior to takeoff is critically important to restore confidence in international air travel and to revive the entire travel industry.  Those who test negative won’t have to quarantine for two weeks when they reach their destination.

The WestJet/YVR pilot has other hurdles besides awaiting a Health Canada approved test; its pilot project also requires UBC ethics board approval since UBC is a partner in the pilot project.

One thing that has been determined is the type of structure that will be used as a testing station. As you see in the illustration above, the Citizen Care Pod, as it’s called, will be placed curbside, outside the WestJet domestic check-in area at YVR.

“The 40-foot pod will offer a private, safe, and comfortable environment to carry out testing, complete with climate control and HEPA filters to ensure the air is as sterile as any hospital environment,” according to the statement by McVicker and Nolen.

Public polling of travelers at YVR earlier this month showed that nearly two-thirds expressed a strong desire for rapid testing at the airport. Passengers were asked if they would be willing to undergo free, voluntary COVID-19 rapid testing before flying. There were 1,966 responses; 61% said yes; 23% said no; 16% said they didn’t know.

The pilot project will target Lower Mainland residents to ensure that anyone testing positive can go home instead of traveling. There will be a four-hour daily testing window to capture WestJet’s departing domestic flights.

The voluntary testing will be free to passengers during the pilot project; WestJet and YVR will cover the costs. The pre-flight COVID testing experiment will be one of two in western Canada. Another pilot project launches next week in Calgary; read about that here.

Posted below are some of the recent COVID exposures on international and domestic flights. as provided by the BC Centre for Disease Control:

pamela@medicinematters.ca