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Workers manufacture partitions made from cardboard and chipboard material at TEC Business Solutions in Mississauga, Ont., on Jan. 13, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Public-health experts are calling on the provinces to speed up rapid-testing rollouts in workplaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as a new survey of workers in a Canadian warehouse hub shows about one-quarter continue to go into work while sick.

Close to 2,000 people, or 25 per cent of those surveyed, were on the job while infected with the virus between August and January, according to study done by Peel Public Health, near Toronto.

Workplaces continue to drive COVID-19 case counts in some of Canada’s largest provinces, and the country’s top health officials are urging provincial governments to deploy the millions of rapid tests in storage to identify people with positive cases before they go to work.

Peel Region, which is one of the country’s largest manufacturing and distribution centres, has struggled throughout the second wave with some of the highest infection rates in the country and climbing workplace outbreaks. The study, which surveyed more than 7,870 workers, also found that 80 people went into work after receiving a positive COVID-19 test result.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie is one of several mayors and public-health officials in Ontario who have repeatedly called on the province to mandate paid sick days. She attributes the issue of infected people going into work to a lack of financial support for low-wage workers in industries deemed essential during the state of emergency.

In the region, which includes the municipalities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, 118 of the 218 workplace outbreaks are in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and food processing. Most recently, 262 workers at a Canada Post facility in Mississauga tested positive for COVID-19, with approximately 50 of those cases identified by onsite rapid testing. The federally regulated mail carrier announced Wednesday that one worker died.

“This is a prime example of where rapid testing can be used to actively detect and isolate these cases,” Ms. Crombie said Wednesday, adding that Canada Post employees receive paid sick-leave benefits.

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Provinces have started gradually implementing rapid testing. In November, Ontario launched eight-week pilot programs with more than 160 employers. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec are also conducting pilots in sectors hard hit by outbreaks.

Rapid tests produce results in between 15 minutes and an hour, rather than days with the lab-based PCR test, making them more convenient to test employees immediately before they enter workplaces and jobsites. While some public-health officials have warned that rapid tests are less reliable than the PCR tests, others say that they can help screen asymptomatic people.

Last week, Amazon and Peel Public Health started conducting voluntary rapid testing at the company’s facilities in Mississauga, Brampton and Bolton. Out of the 1,000 tests done, five people with asymptomatic cases have tested positive for COVID-19.

Ontario Power Generation has received 36,000 rapid tests from the province and launched testing at two of its plants east of Toronto in mid-November, adding the rest of its facilities in January. By testing a random group of employees daily, OPG has conducted 14,000 tests that identified 17 positive cases.

But provinces have been slow to roll out rapid tests. Since late October, the federal government has sent more than 15.8 million tests to the provinces and territories. Ontario received 3.9 million of the tests and has distributed one million. Of the 1.3 million rapid tests that B.C. received, 230,000 have been distributed to regional health authorities. Quebec has sent out 13,000 of its 2.6 million tests.

The federal expert advisory panel on COVID-19 testing and screening recommended in a recent report that the provinces accelerate the use of rapid tests as a screening tool. If screening had been conducted at the Canada Post facility before the outbreak, rapid tests could have identified the positive cases before they spread, said Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of the advisory panel.

“If rapid testing had been in place, that outbreak could have been detected when there were only a handful of cases,” he said.

Rapid testing helps identify people who could spread the virus at work, but some workers are reluctant to volunteer to get tested for fear of losing pay while self-isolating.

“It’s clear that all the essential workers are facing an impossible choice,” said Lawrence Loh, Peel’s Medical Officer of Health. “Do you show up at work and make sure you have food on the table, or do you self-isolate at home and know that you may not be able to make rent?”

Labour advocates and public-health officials have criticized the federal government’s sick-leave program, launched in September. They say that it pays less than minimum wage, results in delayed pay, applies only to workers who lose more than 50 per cent of their hours per week, and can only be used twice.

Ontario has rebuffed calls to mandate employers to provide paid sick leave. Instead, the province’s Labour Minister Monte McNaughton sent a letter to his federal counterpart, cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough, asking the federal government to address the gaps in the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

Ms. Qualtrough’s office did not respond to questions about whether it would address the concerns. Instead, spokeswoman Marielle Hossack said in an e-mail statement that the ministry will continue working with the provinces to provide workers with financial supports.

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