We have a pandemic of the unvaccinated.US President Biden
Vaccines are an essential part of infection control, but they aren’t a magic cure. The vaccine protects individuals from severe symptoms; it doesn’t prevent community transmission or financial consequences.
The ‘magic cure’ mindset, staking everything on vaccines, ignores the very real business risks as COVID becomes endemic.
Business risks like loss of staff time, infections in the community you serve, and even a declining reputation from a COVID outbreak.
These risks are why vaccines should be backed up by convenient diagnostics such as rapid antigen tests.
Here’s some essential information about rapid antigen tests:
Why Should Businesses Test Employees for COVID-19?
Australian businesses, especially those who work with vulnerable communities, know the dangers of a COVID outbreak. If an employee or volunteer catches COVID, there’s a chance that they could unwittingly spread the virus to others, especially if they don’t show symptoms.
An undetected infection in your workforce could have severe consequences – a key employee out of action, community services facility shut down, or even a cluster of cases out of your premises. In high-risk situations, shutdowns and community transmission could risk lives and livelihoods.
State governments have promised to curb widespread lockdowns as vaccine targets are hit. However, ‘targeted’ travel restrictions could still be used, potentially disrupting your critical operations.
Fines may also apply when businesses don’t submit to shut-down orders. In NSW, these charges may be up to $55,000 for the first offence, and $27,500 for each subsequent day.
Testing all your staff for COVID regularly can catch any asymptomatic infections before they spread to the community.
Why Should Businesses Use Rapid Antigen Tests?
The prevailing recommendation for high-risk industries is to send employees to government testing sites for PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) laboratory tests every 72 hours.
PCR tests can detect the smallest traces of virus, so they’re the ‘gold standard’. However, they take 24-48 hours to return results, so require isolation in the meantime. Rapid antigen point-of-care testing is readily available, and far more time-efficient than PCR testing.
In our November 2020 webinar, CSIRO Director Rob Grenfell predicted the importance of diagnostic tests:
The diagnostics are very important for all of us working in the care industries… Who’s safe to actually have close contact with people, who’s not?
…we still only have the so-called PCR, the genetic test on the nasal swab, which at this stage takes… about two days.
But there are tests coming through that will give you results in about 30 minutes and I’m sure they will be very helpful in opening up.
As the developed world planned to reopen in 2021, governments and large multinationals identified the potential of these tests. The US government invested $2 billion in September 2021 to provide rapid antigen tests to Americans, and a further billion in early October to expand production lines.
Used alongside PCR testing, rapid antigen tests can reduce the strain on laboratory workers, while allowing continuous, proactive testing for asymptomatic workers.
Rapid antigen tests are a safety precaution that will detect most cases of COVID before they disturb your business. The rapid tests give businesses confidence, acting as an ‘extra checkpoint’ that might prevent a costly closure.
The business that implements rapid antigen tests can also prove to the government and the wider community that they are doing the right thing, protecting the vulnerable and ensuring the safety of their workers.
Let’s start in on the details of rapid antigen tests.
Introduction of Rapid Antigen Testing to Australia
Point-of-care rapid antigen tests have been in use in Australia, by industries like aged care, since the Therapeutic Goods Authority (TGA) approved legal supply for clinical use in late 2020.
Self-testing only became available in late 2021, because the TGA implemented strict conditions of supply:
Additional conditions are imposed on the supply of COVID-19… rapid antigen (viral protein) tests for use at the point-of-care, as it is considered that the correct interpretation of results obtained from these tests requires the involvement of a suitably qualified healthcare professional.Therapeutic Goods Administration
For a non-clinical business to use these tests, an AHPRA health practitioner must have trained at least one staff member in the correct testing procedures. That AHPRA health practitioner also must assume responsibility for trainees’ use of tests and interpretation of results.
However, once Minister for Health Greg Hunt pushed for self-tests to be allowed, the TGA announced that in-home tests would be legal from the 1st of November 2021.
Self-Testing for Businesses using Rapid Antigen Tests
Businesses have been asking “Will over-the-counter self-tests remove the need for controlled rapid antigen testing set-ups?”
For low-risk businesses in low-risk areas, like schools in remote locations and sole traders operating online, this model could work.
However, self-testing carries some inherent risks.
The main risk, highlighted by the TGA, is that results from tests without medical supervision are less reliable.
This stems from the possibility that self-tests could be administered incorrectly, resulting in false negatives. Specimen collection, interpretation of results, and diagnosis reporting all need to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.
For businesses working with vulnerable people and communities, self-testing is not a reliable level of defense. False negatives from inaccurate testing could lead to infectious staff not isolating, potentially spreading the virus to the community.
Another point of uncertainty is whether the Australian government will subsidise these self-tests. The government may be wary of paying for these tests after covering the large costs of PCR testing.
Without subsidies, each rapid antigen self-test from a retail store could cost up to $30. Would your employees be willing to buy a rapid antigen test twice weekly at this price?
Is self-testing sustainable with these risks?
The Rapid Antigen Test for Businesses – What Are the Options?
We’ve investigated the ways you can set up antigen testing to provide confidence in results while lowering costs. We’ve found two models that suit many businesses – the remote model, and the on-site model.
Remote Rapid Antigen Testing for Businesses
Remote supervision by an AHPRA healthcare professional is an option to consider for businesses with a hybrid or fully dispersed workforce. The healthcare professional can either supervise testing directly over Zoom, or train staff members who conduct tests at each remote location.
Having a medical professional responsible for testing gives more reliable results than self-testing for critical and community-focused industries. Remote testing is more economical and flexible than an on-site model, suited to small to medium businesses spread across several remote locations.
On-Site Rapid Antigen Testing for Businesses
Employing an AHPRA health professional to conduct rapid antigen tests onsite is a solution for large workforces and hub locations.
The on-site model makes sure everyone is screened properly, even when large numbers of people are coming on site at the same time for shifts. In best practice on-site models, full-time health care practitioners set up the stations and test each worker that comes on site every day.
This choice has a very high integrity of results, limited only by the quality of the rapid antigen test. As it is more expensive than the remote model, it matches larger risk profiles, where the costs of infections and closures are very significant.
The Rapid Antigen Test for Businesses – Is it Worth the Effort?
Although Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, public health officials are still calling for caution. They point to the United Kingdom as a warning. Despite high vaccination, the UK still has high case numbers, accompanied by hospitalisations.
If this is the future for COVID in Australia, as the experts predict, it’s important for every high-risk business to take the initiative quickly. Setting up a rapid antigen system now will protect your staff and community, as well as giving you peace of mind that you’re relying on accurate results.
You know the first step to take to safeguard your business: choose a rapid antigen testing model.