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A cryptic choice of words in a news release about a COVID-19 workplace outbreak at a gold mining company in northwestern Ontario is causing confusion, consternation and criticism.

Toronto-based New Gold Inc. said earlier this week that three employees at its Rainy River Mine in Ontario had tested positive for COVID-19 and that an additional seven employees had tested “non-negative” for the deadly virus.

The seven employees were tested with an in-house COVID-19 testing machine, which the company called a “PCR device,” and the “non-negative” tests need to be confirmed with the local health authority. The release appears to suggest that the employees tested “provisionally positive,” for the virus, a plainer and more common verbiage.

Richard Leblanc, professor of law, governance and ethics at York University, found the ‘non-negative” phraseology extremely confusing.

“I am not clear what it means, he said. “I also do not know what the term ‘PCR device’ means.”

John Ing, a veteran gold analyst with Maison Placements in Toronto, was also thrown aback.

“It’s a phrase that I’ve not actually seen after 13 months of this,” he said. “You’re either positive, or you’re not,” he said.

Mr. Ing was also mystified as to why New Gold would appear to be using imprecise language about COVID-19, given that Ontario is facing a brutal third wave, with particular attention being paid to workplace outbreaks.

“Heightened sensitivity about workplace spread and then to use the phrase non-negative,” he said. “It’s very unusual.”

New Gold chief executive officer Renaud Adams declined an interview request for this story, and did not address questions about why the company didn’t use clearer language to describe the test results, such as presumed positive.

While obscure, the term “non-negative,” isn’t completely out of left field.

Dr. Kit Young Hoon, medical officer of health with the Northwestern Health Unit, the jurisdiction in which the Rainy River mine is located, said that manufacturers of COVID-19 testing equipment sometimes use non-negative to describe a positive result that must be verified.

She also said that early on in the pandemic, there was debate about whether non-negative should be used more widely. “There was some discussion about what was the best terminology, whether it was non-negative, or preliminary positive, or presumed positive,” she said. “In the end there was a shift away from non-negative.”

Under Canadian securities laws, companies have an obligation to be “plain” in their disclosures around a material news item.

Philip Anisman, a securities lawyer, and former member of the Ontario Securities Commission, said that one confusing word in a press release isn’t a deal breaker though. As long as the context is clear, the company is legally on side.

“You do have to look at it in the context of the complete press release,” he said.

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