OTTAWA — The Trudeau government says it wants to boost COVID-19 screening of cross-border truckers in Manitoba, though the province says promising consultations haven’t started yet.

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OTTAWA — The Trudeau government says it wants to boost COVID-19 screening of cross-border truckers in Manitoba, though the province says promising consultations haven’t started yet.

"We want to make available access to testing for those essential workers, and particularly those truck drivers," Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told the Free Press last week.

"Because those truck drivers are doing really important work, we are absolutely committed to making sure that they can move those goods back and forth across our border, and do it safely, and do not represent an unacceptable risk to society."

Essential workers such as truckers are exempt from both the federal Quarantine Act for Canadians returning from another country, as well as Manitoba’s public health orders for people coming from other provinces. Both require non-essential workers to isolate for 14 days.

Cross-border truckers face a higher likelihood of COVID-19 exposure, yet they can go into public and their household contacts can go to school or work if no one is experiencing symptoms, similar to families of health-care workers who are more exposed to the novel coronavirus.

In June, the province allowed truckers without symptoms to get tested if they want, a policy it put on hold during last fall’s spike, but has since resumed.

"The province decided to put a hold on some asymptomatic testing, which included asymptomatic testing for truckers, as testing uptake was low in that population anyway," a Health Department spokeswoman wrote.

For months, infectious disease specialists have called for more proactive monitoring of truckers, such as rapid screening tests, particularly as more contagious variants take over American states.

Starting Monday, Ottawa has requires most Canadians driving up to land borders to take a PCR test upon arrival, though Blair ruled out including truckers in that process.

"It would, frankly, cause an unacceptable delay of the movement of those goods and services," Blair said, adding Ottawa is looking at other options. "We’re working with the provinces and the territories."

The Pallister government said Monday it was not aware of any consultations on cross-border truckers.

The Manitoba Trucking Association argued the existing protocols already keep people safe, with no recent outbreaks linked to truckers.

"They’re doing their part to stay isolated," said MTA executive director Terry Shaw. "They shouldn’t be vilified; they should be celebrated for the protocols they’re taking."

Shaw said truckers generally avoid unnecessary journeys, and many have been packing food for stateside trips. Many states have high COVID-19 spread, and some lack paid leave, which experts say incentivizes sick American restaurant workers to still show up for shifts.

Federal data show since the pandemic started, truckers have made between 20,000 and 25,000 entries into Manitoba from the United States each month, accounting for more than half of entries.

Shaw said those entries include truckers who make multiple trips a day, bringing parts between manufacturing plants.

On Monday, he said truckers started reporting border guards were suggesting they download the ArriveCAN app, which allows travellers to fill out custom forms and quarantine plans digitally.

Shaw argues the information is already captured in the detailed reporting used in truck shipments, so he wondered if federal agencies don’t share such data.

"It is a bit of a redundancy, from our perspective," Shaw said. "It’s cumbersome, but it is something our industry will do, if that’s what the federal government is demanding."

Shaw added every time the trucking industry is mentioned in news stories about COVID-19, Manitoba truckers report being unfairly turned away for washrooms at local gas stations and restaurants.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca