Rapid Testing Could Curtail COVID-19 Outbreaks in Canadian Workplaces

By Catherine Skrzypinski May 12, 2021
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Microscopic image of the coronavirus

​During Canada's third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, workplace outbreaks risk transmitting the COVID-19 virus and its variants.

Experts say rapid testing in workplaces could be instrumental in helping Canada fight the third wave.

"We know that a large number of the current cases are coming from workers in essential businesses, so detecting cases early, before employees are symptomatic and before employees enter the workplace and infect others, could do a lot to help curb the spread of the disease," said Nadine Zacks, an attorney with Hicks Morley in Toronto.

According to Health Canada, 41.9 million rapid tests have been shipped to provinces as of March 2021. The Canadian government so far has only deployed approximately 10 million rapid tests for potential use, said Sandy White, co-founder of Rapid Test and Trace Canada, a coalition of academics, medical professionals and business leaders advocating for the widespread adoption of rapid testing.

The rapid tests are designed to detect the novel coronavirus and its variants, Montreal-based White noted.

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Workplace Onsite Testing in Ontario

In Canada, health care falls mostly under provincial jurisdiction. Canadian provinces have approached rapid testing for COVID-19 in a different manner with Ontario leading the way, White explained.

The Ontario provincial government announced in March 2021 that it has relaxed regulations around the use of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests in the workplace. Employees who want to self-swab for a rapid antigen test on a voluntary basis can do so under the supervision of someone who's trained.

A COVID-19 rapid screening test can be carried out at the place of employment in Ontario. The test does not require shipping a specimen to a lab for processing. It takes approximately 15 minutes to yield a result.

The Ontario government has also expanded the rapid testing program to first responders, emergency medical services, trucking and transportation, wastewater management, and higher education.

"Our government is committed to providing greater flexibility and innovative testing options for additional sectors to help stop the spread of COVID-19," Christine Elliott, Ontario's deputy premier and minister of health, said in a statement. "By providing guidance for voluntary, supervised self-swabbing, front-line and essential workers can have quicker and easier access to testing and have an additional layer of protection."

The Ontario government stated that testing is not considered to be an effective preventive measure for COVID-19 on its own. Testing does not replace public health strategies such as symptom screening, physical distancing and hand-washing.

The COVID-19 rapid testing program is not mandatory in Ontario. Right now, most workplace COVID-19 testing programs in Canada should be voluntary, Zacks said. But depending on the industry, it is possible that a mandatory testing program may be permissible.

"Any testing program in Canada must also ensure compliance with human rights legislation by accommodating any employees who refuse testing based on legitimate human rights considerations such as religious beliefs or interference with a disability," she added.

Employers in Ontario who have implemented voluntary COVID-19 testing in their workplaces have been pleased with the results so far, Zacks noted. "Many employees in favor of workplace testing programs want to ensure the safety of the workplace."

Rapid Testing in Canadian Provinces

A ministerial order in Quebec permits health care professionals, including acupuncturists and chiropractors, to test workplaces for COVID-19. All companies and community organizations with staff working in Quebec who cannot telework are eligible for free rapid antigen tests, according to the government of Quebec.

In British Columbia, only health care workers can administer point-of-care test kits to screen for COVID-19 in people without symptoms. The B.C. Center for Disease Control reported in April 2021 that it will give priority to industries with an increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 or outbreaks due to high-contact between workers at food processing plants, farms and work camps in the natural resources sector.

"All industries with people working in close proximity to each other are in desperate need for rapid testing," White said.

Atlantic Canada—including the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island—is a Canadian success story in fighting COVID-19 with rapid testing in the workplace, White stated.

"The Atlantic bubble is testing and targeting the right workplaces—schools, restaurants, bars, manufacturing and food processing plants," he added. "These businesses are allowed to operate safely."

HR's Role in Workplace Safety

Human resource professionals can educate employees about the benefits of rapid testing, Zacks explained. HR professionals can answer employees' questions about what the tests can detect and how long the results take.

"HR is the driver in overseeing rapid testing at their compan[ies]," White added. "They arrange procuring the rapid tests to protect their employees."

HR can also assist employers with organizing and implementing the rapid testing process at their companies, Zacks added.

"HR has evolved to the gateway of safety in the workplace," White concluded.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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