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Quick, What’s 7 x 6? Rapid Testing in the Workplace

Okay, my blog title is silly. Of course I don’t actually mean the “what’s 7 x 6” kind of rapid testing. While the solution to that question might well provide the answer to life, the universe and everything, I actually want to write about an overlooked tool that could help provide the answer to controlling COVID-19 in the workplace.

The Ontario government is offering free rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 to any employer that chooses to participate in its program. The goal is to regularly test employees who don’t have symptoms, in order to proactively identify COVID-19 cases we might not otherwise find. Once cases are identified, the employees can be required to self-isolate at home before they spread the virus in the workplace. By identifying and isolating cases early, we can significantly reduce the risk that an asymptomatic employee unknowingly spreads COVID-19 to their coworkers.

Every employer has a strong interest in reducing the risk of workplace spread. Workplaces were one of the largest sources of outbreaks during the pandemic’s third wave, leading to substantial lost productivity, sick time, the need for multiple employees to isolate, and workplaces being shut down by public health officials.

Here’s how Ontario’s rapid testing program works:

  • The employer applies to the program and agrees to the terms and conditions
  • The employer must notify their regional public health unit before the testing program begins
  • Employers can choose whether to test employees on-site or have employees complete their tests at home
  • The individuals who will be performing tests must receive training on how to do so properly (this means that if employees will self-test at home, all employees must be trained on self-swabbing)
  • Employers can order free rapid antigen tests through suppliers approved by the government
  • Employers should ensure employees are tested 2-3 times per week
  • Since test kits contain possible biohazard waste, employers must ensure test kits are disposed of in accordance with government guidelines
  • An employee who tests positive on a rapid test should be instructed to get a PCR test as soon as possible to confirm the diagnosis (PCR is the standard test administered by government and hospital testing centres), as PCR tests can be more sensitive and accurate

In exchange for providing free rapid tests, the government is requiring employers to report data on how the tests are being used and the test results. Employers must report only aggregated data, without disclosing any identifying information about individual employees. Data must be reported weekly and reports must include:

  • The type of rapid test used
  • Number of rapid antigen tests used
  • Number of invalid rapid antigen test results
  • Number of individuals who tested positive with a rapid antigen test
  • Number of individuals who tested negative with a rapid antigen test

Full details of the program can be found here.

Most of the public conversation about the pandemic recently has centred on vaccines, and vaccines are indeed one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for combatting COVID-19. But vaccines aren’t 100% effective, and fully vaccinated individuals who have breakthrough infections can still spread the virus to others. Along with measures such as masking, distancing, and paid sick leave for employees who need to isolate, rapid testing can be a cheap, effective tool to supplement your vaccination policies. After all, countries like New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as the Atlantic provinces in Canada closer to home, were able to achieve strong COVID-19 control before vaccines were available, with testing and isolation as key parts of their strategies.

For information on vaccine passports, check out our previous blog post.