At a time when as many as four NHL games a night are being scratched as a result of COVID-19, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment has joined a consortium of 12 major companies across Canada that have begun to give rapid antigen tests to employees.
The screenings are different from the deeper nasal swabs that players receive daily and which take 24 to 48 hours to process. The rapid tests are less invasive and provide results within 15 minutes. They are specifically designed to detect the novel coronavirus in individuals without symptoms and their effectiveness is being evaluated as part of a pilot project conducted by the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) at the University of Toronto.
MLSE, which owns the Maple Leafs, has done the screenings since Jan. 18 at Scotiabank Arena on days the team plays home games. The tests will be done again on Monday, when the Ottawa Senators pay a visit.
Nick Eaves, the chief venues and operations officer for MLSE, says the assessments were initially done only for those who volunteered to take one, but they have since become mandatory. They are now given to all employees, third-party contractors and members of the media who enter the building.
“It is definitely the right thing to do,” Eaves says. “We quickly concluded that anything that puts individual safety first is appropriate.”
Eaves says approximately 250 tests are administered on each game day. Through the first six home games since they started, they identified two people who had COVID-19 and were unaware of it.
As soon as the results came back, the individuals were taken to an isolation area for contract tracing, and were then sent home and told to isolate and were instructed to have the standard PCR test within 24 hours.
In both cases, the results of the rapid antigen screenings were confirmed.
“Had we not done the screening, these people would have been in the workplace, on public transit or at home with their families and could have possibly spread the virus,” Eaves says.
Nearly 20 million rapid antigen tests have been distributed by the federal government to Canada’s provinces, which then allocate them for public use. The ones that are being employed as part of the pilot project come from a different stream than those publicly available. The other members of the consortium include Air Canada, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Loblaws, Magna International, Rogers Communications and Suncor.
The tests cost between $5 and $20 each and are paid for with funds received by the non-profit CDL.
The firms participating, including MLSE, pay for the health care workers who administer the screenings, the associated personal protective equipment and any other necessary infrastructure.
The consortium was established last spring and held several meetings with input from academics, epidemiologists, health economists, author Margaret Atwood, former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and two military generals. Companies began working together and started administering the tests in January.
“This is really a race,” says Janice Stein, a political scientist and founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Stein is a fellow at the CDL and a vice-president of strategy for the rapid screening consortium. “We are in a race against the variants. We now understand that screening is going to become extremely important in the next few years. They are an add-on, an additional level of protection to wearing a mask, [physical distancing] and washing your hands.”
Stein said the consortium has been flooded with applications from other business that want to join.
“If we can screen those work forces, develop the protections, reduce the cost and share the knowledge, everybody benefits,” she says.
On Thursday, the NHL and its players association announced additional safety measures to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 and to improve the ability to detect cases. In addition to daily PCR testing, the league said it would provide the 24 U.S. teams the means to administer rapid testing on game days to their employees, players and on-ice officials. The league said it was also working directly with the seven Canadian franchises to help provide similar supplemental testing.
As of Sunday, there were 32 NHL players listed as having COVID-19-related absences. The list is updated daily and includes those with a confirmed case, others who have an initial positive test and are awaiting another confirmation, those who are symptomatic, are considered at risk because they had contact with someone with COVID-19 or are having to quarantine for travel.
At this point, three dozen games have been postponed, including a game scheduled Sunday between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The Flyers have not played since Feb. 7 because of infections to players.
Eaves said MLSE is proud to take part in the pilot project aimed at determining the effectiveness of rapid screening.
“We wanted to help advance the learning about the screens,” Eaves says. “We saw them as one more piece to make sure our arena is safe as possible. “We are living in a world where safety will require a combination of all available measures. Rapid screens are just one. Businesses ... should be taking every step they can.”