After a four-night ordeal in a quarantine hotel in Toronto, a Saskatchewan family is hoping to be back in their own home by Wednesday morning.
Liezel Kennedy said she knew travelling during a global pandemic would come with risks, but she didn't expect to be stuck in a quarantine hotel for days without easy access to basic necessities, after returning from South Africa.
The Saskatchewan woman's family are among several travellers who have had to stay in free quarantine facilities after arriving in Canada from certain countries due to concerns about the omicron COVID-19 variant of concern.
The quarantine measures were put in place Nov. 30. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the government agency responsible for public health and emergency responses, was not immediately available to say how many people are staying in the facilities.
Kennedy, her husband Larry and their children, Liam, six, and Lincoln, 13 months, are keen to get back to their farm near Shamrock, about 147 kilometres southwest of Regina.
Kennedy, who has lived in Saskatchewan for 14 years, decided to take a four-week trip with her family to her former home country — South Africa — when COVID-19 numbers were relatively low in that country and before the discovery of the omicron variant, she said.
"We thought it was a good time to go," she said, adding the family was supposed to fly back to Canada on Dec. 1.
However, "all hell broke loose," Kennedy said.
A new coronavirus variant of concern called omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on Nov. 24.
The Canadian government has since placed restrictions on 10 African countries due to the presence of omicron.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents can return home, but must quarantine and be tested for COVID-19, according to the PHAC website.
Family delayed after negative test results
Once the Kennedy family learned about the variant, they called the airline and Expedia to find out what was happening and they were assured their flight was going ahead, she said. However, their flight was eventually cancelled and they flew to Toronto on Dec. 2.
They had to do COVID-19 tests in South Africa before leaving and again after arriving in Canada on Dec. 3, said the mother-of-two.
The family was told they had to wait for the Canadian PCR test results in a free designated quarantine facility (DQF) in Toronto before being allowed to continue their trip home, according to Kennedy.
The results came back negative on the evening of Dec. 4, she said.
Yet, the family didn't receive permission to leave the quarantine hotel until the afternoon of Dec. 6. They are flying out of Toronto late Tuesday and hope to be back home Wednesday morning.
Kennedy said they've heard from other travellers at the facility have been waiting for 72 hours to get permission to leave.
In an email to CBC, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said the majority of test results are issued to people within 24-48 hours.
"Those in the DQF who are required to continue to quarantine or isolate will speak with a PHAC officer to ensure they have a suitable place prior to being released," the federal agency said.
"PHAC is working to boost its capacity to release travellers as close to their test result as possible."
The long wait time, though, was not the only issue for the family.
It has been hard to access some basic necessities at the hotel, especially since their luggage was misplaced and they only had their carry-on bags with them, Kennedy said.
"In the event that a traveller has a connecting flight and is directed to quarantine or isolate in a DQF at their point of entry, it is possible that their luggage would transit on to the final destination," PHAC said by email.
In this case, travellers have to work with the airline to have the luggage returned to them and then PHAC would coordinate the delivery to the hotel room, according to the agency.
LISTEN | Family desperate to get home:
The only way to request things at the quarantine hotel, for example milk or diapers for their 13-months-old child, was by calling the Red Cross, Kennedy said.
"You cannot phone room service and get something," she said.
"There is one number to phone, which is the Red Cross … You can be on hold for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before you get through. And they do warn you that the stuff that you order might not be there until the next day."
According to Kennedy, the Red Cross number was only operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
When they asked for more diapers in a certain size for their little boy, the couple said they were told that only diapers in smaller or bigger sizes were available.
"This is the city of Toronto," Kennedy said. "One would assume that they could find diapers the right size somewhere. But we'll make do."
While the family received free meals three times a day, children-friendly food or milk was not on the menu, she said.
Even little things like dish soap or apples were difficult, according to Kennedy.
"We got told that they have no way of handling or processing fruit at this facility," she said. "This is a hotel for crying out loud."
PHAC said all travellers who stay at DQFs have access to 24-hour support.
"Transportation to the quarantine site, lodging, meals/incidentals, as well as security and cleaning personnel are standard services for all DQF and are contracted to organizations that offer the required expertise."
No hot water, no outside food deliveries
In an email to CBC, the Canadian Red Cross said it is working in support of PHAC to provide comfort and care to returning travellers.
Those services include registration, wellness checks, provision of personal items, such as hygiene kits, items for childcare, phone chargers, or prescription medications, according to the Red Cross.
Kennedy said they don't have a problem quarantining, and they would be happy to pay for outside food deliveries but that wasn't allowed.
The family said they were not able to do laundry at the quarantine facility, and initially their room didn't have hot water to shower either.
'We just want to go home'
These "little incidences," as the mother-of-two called them, made the stay difficult for the Saskatchewan family.
"We are vaccinated, we've got our negative test result, we don't want to waste any more taxpayers' money sitting here," Kennedy said on Monday morning. "We just want to go home and go quarantine where we have hot water and clean clothes."
Despite the issues, the staff at the hotel and the nurses did their best, Kennedy said, noting they even dropped off a teddy bear for the kids.
"This issue isn't the staff that are here helping us," Larry Kennedy said, noting they've been staying in contact with other travellers there through a WhatsApp group.
"There's people here needing medication," he said. "There's people here that want gluten free food options that they claim they are not getting."
According to PHAC onsite nurses complete daily health assessments and can arrange for non-emergency medical appointments at a nearby hospital if needed.
Despite the challenges, Liezel Kennedy said they don't regret doing the trip.
"I have some elderly family [in South Africa] as well, so you just never know when you get to see somebody again," she said.
"We made our choices and that's it. We'll live with it. But you know, for future travelers, we would sure like them to have a better experience at the hotel than what we've had."
In a news conference on Friday, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Canada has had strong border measures throughout the pandemic to protect the health and safety of Canadians.
"I believe, and that's what we hear from public health officials, that what we've announced last week on Friday [Nov. 26] and on Tuesday is currently the best set of measures, given the necessity and capability with which we are facing when we're dealing with these issues," he said.
"It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers, but we're ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day."