The Ontario government has announced the province’s large construction employers will be giving up to 40,000 rapid antigen tests on jobsites each week starting in March.
The program represents an escalation of the pilot testing program EllisDon is currently carrying out on a handful of its sites. The contractor began testing its employees as part of the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Test Pilot in December and announced its acceleration to other large sites on Feb. 8.
Minister of Labour Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton announced the new testing plan Feb. 18. That day he, Premier Doug Ford, Ontario Chief Prevention Officer Ron Kelusky and others observed rapid testing in action at Menkes’ Waterfront Innovation Centre, where EllisDon is the contractor.
“It’s a game changer in the construction industry,” said McNaughton about the testing in an interview. “The premier and I got to see firsthand the success of the program.”
Under the program, workers take the Rapid Antigen Test with an onsite health care worker at the start of a workday, with each worker tested twice a week. Results are received within 15 minutes.
The Ministry of Health website explains frequent screening with rapid antigen tests increases the chances of early identification of cases in otherwise asymptomatic individuals. Antigen testing detects specific proteins from the virus to identify people who need further testing.
Workers testing positive are not allowed to proceed onto the worksite and are reported to public health, sent to get a more conclusive COVID test at an assessment centre and told to stay home until healthy.
“If we catch someone before they bring it onto the site, that’s a good thing,” commented Carmine Tiano, director for occupational health services for the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario. “We put mechanisms in place, we’re catching the disease before it comes through the door.”
McNaughton put the number of rapid tests planned by various large contractors at 35,000 to 40,000 every week starting in March.
“But today, what was fascinating, we got to see firsthand the tests. Earlier, before I got there, there was actually a construction worker that tested positive for COVID-19. So these tests give a result within 15 minutes. And this worker was sent to an assessment centre to have a test and also was sent home in isolation.
“It really speaks to and shows the importance of rapid tests. I mean, this construction site today had 250 workers on it. The one worker that tested positive was sent home and prevented COVID from being transmitted to other workers on the site.”
EllisDon has had several COVID episodes with multiple positive tests at Toronto sites including the Eglinton Crosstown project and The Well multi-use site in December and January as well as cases surfacing at the Michael Garron hospital site.
McNaughton had praise for the contractor’s efforts.
“EllisDon has gone above and beyond,” he said, noting the rapid testing itself was a safe process with masks and distancing. “They had the pre-screening of workers, temperature checks, and the questionnaire that every worker had to fill out. Plus they had an onsite rapid-test booth set up. It was a showpiece of how rapid testing can work successfully in construction.”
Kelusky’s office has been involved in the rapid testing pilot project and is assisting with the larger rollout of rapid testing in March.
“We’ve made it very clear to the industry and it has certainly been acknowledged and again with the trades and general contractors, that even if we get widespread rapid testing in construction, we don’t let our guard down with respect to masking and physical distancing. All that still has to take place until somebody stands up and says, everyone’s vaccinated and it’s all over,” he said. “So this level of vigilance has got to carry on until that time.”