An Air North flight arrives in Whitehorse in 2016. Air North was not informed by health officials about a passenger with COVID-19 having travelled on one of its planes, said Joe Sparling, the airline’s president, but instead found out via social media like everyone else. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Air North not informed by officials of COVID-19 case, president says

Joe Sparling says Air North learned via social media that passenger on flight had COVID-19

Air North was not informed by health officials about a passenger with COVID-19 having travelled on one of its planes, the Yukon airline’s president says.

Instead, Joe Sparling told the News March 30, the company found out the same way many others did — on social media, after federal authorities launched a website tracking domestic flights on which people with confirmed cases of the disease have travelled.

“We were made aware in the same way that you were … Somebody picked up the social media post and sent it to us, so we just found out yesterday or the day before,” he said.

The Canadian government recently launched a webpage tracking possible COVID-19 exposure on flights, on cruise ships and at mass gatherings. Among the cases listed under “domestic flights” is an Air North flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse on March 14, with rows four to 10 affected.

As of April 2, it’s the only Yukon-related incident listed on the page.

Sparling said that while, to his knowledge, Yukon health officials contacted affected passengers and told them to monitor themselves for the development of any symptoms — among the markers of COVID-19 are a cough, fever and difficulty breathing — officials did not contact Air North or individual crew members.

“The only contact we had was, we had a request on a particular flight to provide a manifest and seat map but we didn’t hear anything subsequent to that, you know, with any advice that there was a positive-tested passenger on the airplane or anything like that,” he said.

“… I don’t think we were asked to provide crew names so obviously that’s a gap that has to be plugged between the airline and the health authorities.”

In an email March 31, Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Patricia Living wrote that if a person who tests positive for COVID-19 is found to have flown within the past 14 days, the Yukon government will “contact only the people on that flight who were sitting specifically within the range of the infected individual.”

“Although YG is conducting contact tracing related to air travel, many jurisdictions in Canada no longer conduct any contact tracing related to air travel and COVID-19,” she wrote. “This is because there is no direct evidence that contacting individual air travellers/crew has found any early cases of COVID-19.”

Living ignored questions from the News about how many affected passengers were on the Air North flight, as well as whether it’s considering informing airlines of COVID-19 cases in the future.

Yukon health officials have previously said they will not be publicly identifying flights that had passengers with COVID-19 on them.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, reiterated that position at a COVID-19 update on March 30, describing the posting of the affected Air North flight as “unnecessary.”

Sparling told the News that Air North has reached out to health officials to see if there can be a better flow of information in the future.

In the meantime, the airline is also grappling with a huge downturn in air travel, with Sparling confirming that up to 50 per cent of Air North’s staff may be laid off as a result.

“Unfortunately… the flying demand, as you can appreciate, has plummeted, so that’s had a direct impact on the number of flights we fly and that of course in turn has a direct impact on the number of staff we employ,” he said.

“ … At this point, the Arctic Winter Games was a drop in the bucket.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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