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An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID- 19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Nov. 23, 2020.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A third wave – one likely caused by variant strains of COVID-19 – looms large across the country. It could hit well before herd immunity can be achieved through vaccinations. We all know what a third wave could mean: more hospitalizations and death. More restrictions. More lockdowns.

At our business schools, we teach that while even the best leaders can be caught off guard, unsure of how to respond to disruption or change, they must learn how to do so because there will be a next time. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. The time to learn is now. The decisions we make today about how to reduce the impact of a possible third wave will have significant repercussions.

In the past year, we have learned a lot about how to deal with a pandemic. One screening tool that we now have at our disposal that was not here 12 months ago is rapid antigen testing. Throughout Canada, the use of these tests is growing. The Alberta government announced earlier this week a significant expansion of rapid testing, and said it will make at least two million rapid tests available to businesses.

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While the rapid tests alone are not used to provide a diagnosis of COVID-19, they are an effective way of screening large numbers of people to determine who may need to get a more definitive test that can confirm a diagnosis.

For our health, and our economy, rapid testing is a game-changer. Following up on the $74-billion cost of the first-wave CERB program last spring, the federal government recently reported that the second-wave Canada Recovery Benefit program cost $11.1-billion by the end of February, almost double the $6-billion that was targeted to March 31.

In the systemwide shutdowns, people have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, their social networks, their sense of purpose, their sense of dignity. The blunt instrument of shutdowns was the right response when we had no other options, but now that we do, they may not be the best approach.

The promise of rapid screening is that the tests can be administered easily. They no longer require the deep, nasal “brain tickler” swabs but rather a non-invasive nasal swab that returns results in about 20 minutes. These screens help detect the presence of COVID-19 in asymptomatic people, who are generally not tested now. When people test positive, they are told to quarantine and go for a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test with the provincial health system, which can provide a definitive diagnosis. Rapid-screening programs can be set up in workplaces to add another layer of protection on top of masking and physical distancing.

Rapid antigen testing provides the significant benefit of enabling us to screen people in the work force on a regular basis, which will help stop the spread of COVID-19 by people who don’t even know they have it. So how exactly do organizations launch their own testing programs?

The Rapid Screening Consortium, formed in August through the multiple sites of the Creative Destruction Lab at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, launched a pilot project involving 12 Canadian companies that have developed the operational knowledge and implementation strategy for rapid antigen screening. The companies, which include Air Canada, Suncor Energy, Rogers Communications Inc., MLSE Ltd. and Nutrien, are often competitors, but in the fight against COVID-19 they are working together for the common good. The group has developed a 900-page document of recommended procedures, which has been shared with Health Canada and all provincial health authorities. Together, the consortium’s members have done the heavy lifting.

One of the findings the group reported is that screening provided increased confidence among workers. Many employees felt it was another effective tool in a multilayered strategy to protect the health of the work force. They also felt less anxious about the possibility of bringing the virus home to their families and communities.

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COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic, and it will not be the last. Now is a critical time to test a rapid-screening protocol that will prepare us much better for any future pandemics.

Jim Dewald is dean of the Haskayne School of Business, one of nine sites of the Creative Destruction Lab and its Rapid Screening Consortium.

Janice Stein, the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, works with the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium.

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