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The B.C. government has backed off on a requirement that only registered health professionals can administer rapid tests to screen for COVID-19 in the workplace, but not a single employer has yet qualified for the province’s point-of-care testing program that was promised in early March.

Daniel Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Wednesday that government-imposed hurdles have prevented businesses from utilizing workplace-based rapid testing across the country, and B.C. has been one of the last provinces to shift tactics to help employers improve safety in the workplace.

“In England, you have school kids as young as age five self-administering these tests,” he said. “This is not an impossible public policy challenge – but governments, for some reason, have been really slow to move on this.”

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Mr. Kelly is a member of the federal government’s industry advisory panel on COVID-19. The roundtable is recommending that rapid testing should be used to screen for COVID-19 in congregate and high-risk settings such as workplaces. It recommends that 3 per cent of the Canadian population should be tested daily, and much of that should be in the workplace. “Giving industry direct access to tests is critical to optimizing distribution and maximizing efficiency,” the panel’s latest report argues.

But Mr. Kelly said change is only starting to take place. “It’s been a giant miss on the part of the federal and provincial governments to roll out rapid testing more effectively,” he said. He said Alberta and Ontario led the way in allowing non-medical staff to administer the tests. “That was a really critical step that B.C. for some reason was dragging its heels on.”

B.C. businesses in particular have been frustrated, he said, because the province hasn’t offered rapid tests broadly in the workplace, but since April 8, health authorities have temporarily shut down dozens of businesses where COVID-19 has been spreading among workers.

Until last week, B.C. required a medical professional such as a registered nurse to administer the point-of-care tests.

Dr. Mark Gilbert, medical director of clinical prevention services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the change was made in recognition that only the largest employers would be able to utilize the rapid tests.

The province announced a testing strategy on March 4 that was designed to open up rapid testing in the work force. Currently, B.C. has relied mostly on a laboratory test – the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test – to diagnose COVID-19. The PCR test is more reliable but can take up to three days to deliver results, compared with the point-of-care tests that can produce results on the spot in as little as 15 minutes. Positive tests can then be verified with a PCR test.

B.C.’s testing strategy was set up to deploy the kits to long-term care homes and other congregate-living facilities such as student residences, along with high-risk industries such as food processing plants.

Health Canada has sent millions of rapid test kits to each province, but nationally, few have been used. In B.C., just 27,721 kits – less than 1 per cent of the 2,796,506 tests sent by Ottawa – have been used.

There is an urgency to get the kits into use. B.C. has 1.4 million test kits that will expire in the fall.

“Last week, we made the shift that it no longer has to be done by a health care provider – it can be done by a trained provider. So that’s a shift that makes it a little bit less of a barrier,” Dr. Gilbert said.

Dr. Gilbert heads the point-of-care testing strategy and has access to the province’s stockpile of Abbott Panbio kits to distribute to private organizations. The program so far has received 33 applications, but some of those applicants do not fit the criteria that B.C. had set for high-risk workplaces and congregate settings.

“At the moment there hasn’t yet been an organization that received those kits.” he said. “It’s taken some time to kind of get all the pieces sorted out.”

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