Thousands of autoworkers in Ontario have undergone rapid COVID-19 tests as employers across Canada step up screening measures while delays occur in vaccine deliveries and aggressive new variants of the potentially deadly virus emerge.
Since late last year, Magna International Inc. has completed several thousand tests in Ontario. “Our positive rates align with those published by public health,” said Magna spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst.
The auto parts giant is among a group of large employers — including Air Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Loblaws Cos. Ltd. — participating in a COVID19 rapid-test pilot project led by the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Magna’s former CEO, Don Walker, is a founding member of the consortium. He was unavailable for an interview.
Other employers have added rapid COVID-19 test programs on their own in a bid to contain a pandemic that has at times closed factories, schools and stores and dragged the global economy into recession.
Toyota Canada began offering the optional on-site test to employees in early December, spokesman Michael Bouliane wrote in an email.
“We hope that this rapid testing will help take pressure off the public health system while also helping us continue to provide the safest possible work environment for our employees,” Bouliane said.
HELPING PUBLIC HEALTH
Industry jumped at the chance to participate in the nonprofit CDL as a way to help government when public health units were stretched, said Janice Stein, a fellow at CDL.
“There were underinvestments in public health capacity in this country. We all know that,” Stein told Automotive News Canada. “Looking across the country, capacity is stretched to the breaking point.
“Part of what motivated these companies is, ‘Let’s help build the capacity and make the learnings public.’ ”
This has become particularly important as workplaces emerge as a primary source of infection, Stein said.
Rapid COVID-19 tests can provide results within 15 minutes. They are considered less accurate than the more costly and time-consuming gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which must confirmed by a lab. But the rapid test is seen as another potentially effective tool, alongside hand-washing, physical distancing and masks.
The consortium expects to begin publishing biweekly results in mid-February, said Stein, adding that early findings are encouraging.
RAPID — BUT ACCURATE
Employees are eager to participate, both because of concerns they could get infected at work and then take it home and also because employers have agreed to provide paid sick leave if the test is confirmed as positive, Stein said.
The rapid test is also proving to be surprisingly accurate, she said. Anyone who receives a positive rapid-test result is sent to a public health agency for a PCR test for confirmation.
Magna’s Fuerst said the rapid testing is open to all employees and their families. “The government has provided us with enough tests to adequately keep the program running until this summer, which at that time we hope vaccinations will be in a good place,” she said.
Magna is sharing its results with the Ontario government, Fuerst said.
Demand for the consortium’s pilot project is high, said the CDL’s Stein. Hundreds of other companies have asked to join since testing got under way early in January.
The program is currently available in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and New Brunswick, but more provinces are expected to sign on, she said. The tests are supplied by the federal government and allocated by the provinces.
DEMAND TESTING SUPPLIES
There’s currently a global shortage of rapid COVID-19 tests, Stein said.
The Canadian government announced last October that it had secured up to 20.5 million Panbio rapid antigen tests from U.S.-based Abbott Rapid Diagnostics. In November, Ontario announced that it had received 1.2 million Panbio tests, which would be used in long-term-care facilities and other workplaces, such as Magna, Air Canada and Loblaws. The province expected to get an additional 1.5 million tests by the end of December.
The Canadian Association of Moldmakers welcomed Ontario’s move to make rapid tests available to manufacturers, Chairman Jon Azzopardi said.
“We don’t know when we’re getting them,” Azzopardi said. “It’s not going to get to us until they’ve taken care of the large employers.”
Most manufacturers are doing a good job of keeping COVID-19 out of their plants, he said, but they can’t control what’s going on in the community.