OTTAWA — In a move business organizations say is long overdue, the federal and some provincial governments are making rapid tests freely and widely available to businesses in order to screen their employees regularly for COVID-19.
For now, the plan is to deliver most of the tests for free through local chambers of commerce. Ontario is the first province to roll it out, announcing Friday it has already sent 760,000 rapid test kits to 28 chambers of commerce for distribution. More provinces should be on board soon, business organizations told the National Post.
The federal government will also make rapid tests available at 40 Shoppers Drug Mart locations in COVID-19 hot spots in Ontario, and the hope is to eventually expand and have the kits available at many pharmacies across the country. The federal government also has an online portal where businesses can request free rapid test kits.
Rapid tests are easy to operate, get results in about 15 minutes, and — most importantly — can be used every few days on asymptomatic people to find cases that might otherwise go undetected. This type of frequency is not possible for lab-based PCR testing, which is more accurate but much slower and far more resource intensive to run.
“This is very good news in terms of saving people’s lives and saving businesses,” said Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty. “I wish that this had been in place weeks ago, but it is very good news that it is there today.”
The primary obstacle to implementing rapid tests in Canada has been the red tape provincial health authorities have put around using the tests — especially a rule that required the tests to be operated by health care professionals such as nurses. Such a rule makes widespread rapid testing effectively impossible, given Canada’s already limited health care resources.
Provinces have now gradually started to roll back that rule and allow for self-swabbing, but Beatty said they’re still battling red tape.
“The impediment at this point is the crazy quilt of provincial and territorial regulations,” Beatty said. “It’s bizarre, I don’t understand it. Lives are at stake and the economy’s at stake. It doesn’t cost the provinces anything. Yet they are standing in the way of businesses being able to put these things to use.”
He said there is huge demand from businesses to get access to rapid tests.
“In the United Kingdom, the government is sending these tests to individual homes and encouraging people to test themselves,” Beatty added. “This is not complicated. It’s something that anyone can do.”
Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, also welcomed the announcement but was frustrated at how long it took to happen.
“This is long, long, long overdue,” Kelly said. “Ontario, to its credit, did move on removing some of the regulatory hurdles earlier than a lot of provinces. But it’s outrageous to me that governments allowed a whole year before they actually got their act together and allowed for rapid testing to be used as a tool to try to keep asymptomatic spread out of Canadian workplaces.”
The program is based in part on a successful project run in Waterloo region called StaySafe that launched in mid-April. In its first two weeks, StaySafe gave out 120,000 rapid tests to more than 1,500 businesses.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave credit to the StaySafe project in announcing the rapid testing expansion Friday. “Cases have been found in asymptomatic people who had no idea they were positive, but because of the test result, were then able to isolate to prevent transmission,” Trudeau said. “More screening and testing means safer workplaces and less community transmission that will help us reopen our economy faster.”
Advocates of rapid testing have long argued that too much attention is paid to the lower sensitivity of the tests compared to lab-based PCR testing. The key to rapid testing is frequency. The tests, which use a shallow nasal swab, can be done over and over again — ideally every day, but at least twice a week in the meantime — to find cases in asymptomatic people who would otherwise not qualify for a lab test, and might then spend days passing the virus on to others before realizing they had it.
In a news release, Health Canada said that rapid tests have now correctly identified more than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 — meaning cases that were subsequently confirmed with a PCR test.
Experts say rapid testing alone can’t fight the pandemic, and other public health measures — above all, vaccines — are still needed to keep the virus at bay. But Kelly said that getting rapid testing into more workplaces will be a very important tool for keeping businesses open after the third wave subsides.
“I fully expect that even as businesses are reopened in the next several weeks or months, there are going to be flare-ups,” Kelly said. “Rapid testing can take out some asymptomatic spread, and it can be used as a confidence builder for customers.”