OHS Canada Magazine

East Coast rotational workers say federal self-isolation rules lack clarity

Workers who travel outside country must isolate for 14 days under Quarantine Act


By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

THE TELEGRAM

Newfoundland and Labrador rotational workers who travel outside Canada find it frustrating enough that they don’t qualify for modified self-isolation rules reserved for domestic workers.

Add to that the ambiguous wording of federal exemptions under the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the different standard can seem maddening.

Under modified provincial health measures, local workers who travel back and forth to jobs within Canada can sign up for COVID-19 tests on Day 1 of their arrival home. If that test is negative, they can isolate in the same living quarters with their families and leave the house for walks or other activities at a distance from others. If another test on Day 7 also turns out negative, they are basically free to leave isolation altogether with a couple of provisos.

Workers who travel outside the country, however, must isolate for a full 14 days under the federal Quarantine Act.

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Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald has said she’s brought the issue up with federal counterparts, but that otherwise her hands are tied.

The provincial Department of Health was tight lipped Friday about whether any progress has been made, but PHAC did offer a glimmer of hope — albeit a faint one.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada is aware of the situation and is looking into it,” a spokesperson said in a statement Friday.

“Workers who can demonstrate a regular cross-border pattern of work, provided they do not provide direct care for persons over the age of 65, may be exempt from the three-night hotel stay, 14-day quarantine.”

If there is a question at the border as to a traveller’s exemption status, the agent will consult a “quarantine officer” who can then refer the matter to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO), Dr. Theresa Tam.

And that’s where the light begins to dim.

The CPHO has to determine that the person applying for exemption poses no risk of significant harm to public health.

“As a result, this provision would only be used by the CPHO in very rare circumstances and the bar for a person or class of persons seeking to qualify for this exemption is very high,” the PHAC statement said. “To date, requests for such an exemption have been considered on a case-by-case basis depending upon the facts presented.”

Ambiguity arises, however, because both PHAC and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) seem to distinguish cross-border workers from essential workers and those who live in adjacent border communities.

PHAC lists those who may be exempt for quarantine as follows:

  • provide essential services
  • maintain the flow of essential goods or people
  • are receiving medical care within 36 hours of entering Canada (non-related to COVID-19)
  • regularly cross the border to work
  • live in an integrated trans-border community

And the PHAC spokesperson confirmed the category includes workers who cross from either side of the border.

Furthermore, the cross-border worker category is broken down as follows:

“Persons who must cross the border regularly to go to their normal place of employment, including critical infrastructure workers (energy and utilities, information and communication technologies, finance, health, food, water, transportation, safety, government and manufacturing), provided they do not directly care for persons 65 years of age or older within the first 14 days after their entry to Canada.”

In other words, it doesn’t seem to apply only to essential work.

And here’s what the border services agency said in a statement:

“In order for a traveller to be considered a cross-border worker, the traveller must cross the border regularly to go to their normal place of employment and demonstrate a regular pattern of travel, which is generally defined as daily or weekly, or if the travellers can establish a regular pattern of travel. The nature of their work does not impact this assessment.”

The only difference with rotational workers in this province would be the intervals are typically bi-weekly or monthly.

International rotational workers say they’ve had enough of the isolation and the stigma, and have lobbied for months for a solution.

“I understand the measures in place are to protect the people of Canada during these unprecedented times, but exceptions should be considered … on a case-by-case bases,” wrote Justin Spurrell in a recent email to The Telegram.

Spurrell, from Valleyview, works on a seismic testing vessel and embodies the typical experience of a worker who already endures long periods of isolation and travel even before he or she lands on home soil.

“Offshore workers like myself are tested before joining the vessel. We are, by the nature of the job, isolated for five weeks, and the little contact we have with the `outside world’ is during the transit home (a couple of airports and flights),” he wrote. “The burden imposed on people like myself is enormous. Imagine being allowed to see your family and friends for two out of 10 weeks. It is a lot of time away. In a year, I will have spent less than 90 days with them. The impact on one’s mental health is tremendous.”

How can workers know if they qualify for an exemption? That’s easier asked than answered.

None of the agencies contacted could seem to explain, and a call to the COVID-19 information line, 1-833-784-4397, immediately transferred to a quarantine hotel booking agent who was of little help.


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