Windsor pushes for pilot project to improve cross-border flow of essential workers

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell




A Windsor tech firm is spearheading a pilot project it hopes will allow for a smoother cross-border flow of essential workers, while also reducing the risk of importing COVID infections.

Audacia Bioscience’s WEPass plan was submitted to the federal and provincial governments in early December for study.

The pilot project is supported by an extensive advanced manufacturing sector in southwestern Ontario, as well as the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, the Institute for Border Logistics and Security and the University of Windsor.

“We have to develop a plan to eventually open our land border because closing it, like lockdowns, works for awhile, but eventually it has to end,” said Audacia Bioscience CEO Phillip Olla.

“We’re not going to eliminate COVID, so we have to learn to live with it like so many other viruses.”

Local members of Parliament Irek Kusmierczyk (L — Windsor-Tecumseh) and Brian Masse (NDP — Windsor-West) have been lobbying on behalf of the concept.

“Our strict border policies prioritize the health and safety of Canadians,” Kuzmierczyk said. “A Made-in-Windsor solution like WEPass, that reliably maintains that highest level of safety and that passes the rigorous Health Canada assessment, would be a good thing.

“I have raised WEPass with Minister Patty Hajdu’s team at Health Canada, but the process for Health Canada approval is strictly independent.”

Olla said the project is ready to launch once government approval is given. Partnering in the project are Windsor firms Auxilium Group (data management) and block chain specialists One Ledger and Sunshine Pharmacies.

Audacia and its partners will provide $50,000 worth of testing, services and supports.

The pilot project would require those crossing into Canada to present a digital certification of an antigen test for COVID-19 taken that day.

Travellers would be required to quarantine until a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) swab test comes back from a lab as negative. Those that get two negative test results would be released early from their mandated 14-day quarantine.

Olla said the plan would reduce quarantine times, for those who test negative, to a matter of a few days.

“The antigen testing would be done prior to arriving at the border to avoid traffic tie-ups,” said Olla, who has been working with the Public Health Agency of Canada in crafting the project.

“You’ll get a digital health certificate to present at the border. “The code on it will allow the border agent to verify the test was done that day.”

Olla added no personal information beyond the date of the test and result will be available for viewing. The digital certificate can also be transferred into a CommonPass health passport, preferred by airlines.

The antigen testing will be done at Sunshine Pharmacies, with the company’s location at 3211 Sandwich St. serving as the first test site. As demand dictates, the testing would expand to other Sunshine outlets.

“The border is a two-way street, so we have similar arrangements on the U.S. side,” Olla said.

The testing and lab work will be done by private firms, avoiding further strain on public health resources.

The cost of the antigen test is $50 to $75, but in other similar pilot projects in Alberta and Toronto, the government has covered the costs.

Olla said having definitive plans for essential workers and Canadians returning from abroad at land crossings is vital.

“There are some loopholes in the new travel restrictions because the rules around quarantines at land crossings don’t mandate you have to go to a hotel for 14 days,” said Olla of the new requirements at airports. “I can see people flying into U.S. cities close to the border and crossing by land.”

For the business community, the WEPass pilot project would be a lifeline that could prevent already substantial financial damage due to the pandemic from becoming fatal.

“CAMM is a part of the original team who brought the suggestion to the government to push for a pilot project at the border that included rapid testing and pre-clearance,” said Canadian Association of Mold Makers chair Jonathon Azzopardi.

“We need it and we are excited to participate.”

In a CAMM survey released Friday, a third of the 39 companies responding said the issues at the border have cost them contracts in excess of $1 million apiece.

Azzopardi said Laval would lose 30 per cent its U.S. contracts this year without the pilot project.

Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rakesh Naidu said 20 to 30 per cent of local business revenue comes from Americans.

“Anything we can do to safely open the border should be looked at carefully,” Naidu said.

“We have better tools — technology, testing and contact tracing — and it’s important we find a way to open the border even on a limited basis.”