COLD LAKE – Hundreds of workplaces across the Lakeland, including hundreds more across the province are taking part in rapid screening programs for COVID-19 with tests provided by Health Canada being dispersed by provinces to business with 150 employees or less.
Rapid tests carried out in participating businesses are done on a weekly basis in order to screen for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19. These rapid tests are administered to both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. However, a negative test result administered by an employer cannot be used by an employee to gain access to facilities participating in the province’s Restriction Exemption Program (REP).
Included on the Government of Alberta’s website it states, “The Rapid Screening Program cannot support testing for the purpose of the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP). This means that you cannot supply documentation to your employees about their test results for admission/entry to a site, venue or an event that participates in the REP. Unvaccinated individuals must pay to obtain a negative COVID test through a private vendor or pharmacy to gain admission.”
With a mission to support businesses and the local economy in the region, Sherri Buckle, the executive director of the Cold Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, sees this stipulation an unnecessary addition that keeps a large number of residents out of local businesses.
“The (rapid testing program) is a good program and I'm glad we have it, but there are some holes in it that I think could be tightened up and used, surely, in rebuilding and reopening of our economy and allowing people to go to a restaurant with the results of that rapid testing program,” Buckles told Lakeland This Week.
With the support of Cold Lake Chamber’s members, Buckle sent a letter to the Premier Jason Kenney, Bonnyville-Cold Lake- St. Paul MLA David Hanson and former Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
“We challenged them and said if you're truly about rebuilding and reopening the economy, then it won't matter which precautions, just any one of the above will work. I couldn't even get a response back from them... I got an acknowledgment, but that was it,” she said.
“The only benefit is for (the employer) of your business. But if those people wanted to go to a restaurant or a movie theatre, they'd still have to go find a private rapid testing clinic to get those results, which would be exactly the same as what we just did.”
In the letter to the Premier, Buckle pointed out that Cold Lake and the greater Lakeland region remains an area with low vaccination rates compared to the rest of the province, causing many residents to be prohibited from entering businesses following REP.
Roughly 63 per cent of residents in Cold Lake and the area of Bonnyville have had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Nov. 17.
“A large contributor to this we believe are our demographics,” she stated in the letter. “(The rapid testing program) still only allows the employees to attend work... even though they are regularly tested, and some could argue ‘safer’ to be in public places than a vaccinated individual not being tested regularly.”
Buckle also stated private testing clinics are often limited or not available in rural communities, limiting the options for unvaccinated individuals who are willing to pay for a private test.
“It is apparent that our business community is willing to do what it takes to continue to keep their business alive and this would be one more tool to help them do so,” she concluded. “In turn it can help to continue to rebuild the local economy which has been hit over and over throughout the past 19 months.”
Response from Provincial and Federal health ministries
In a response to Lakeland This Week’s questions asking why employees taking part in the rapid test screening program could not use their test results in alternative settings, the assistant director of Alberta Health, Lisa Glover, wrote “The free rapid tests provided through Alberta’s Rapid Testing Program are provided for regular workplace screening of employees only. This is a requirement from Health Canada, which provides the testing kits to provinces.”
Furthermore, Glover stated, “Unvaccinated Albertans must provide a privately-paid for rapid test taken within the previous 72 hours to be able to access businesses and facilities participating in the Restriction Exemptions Program.”
Glover also suggested that parameters set out by the federal health agency impacted how the province was able to use the rapid test kits.
When Lakeland This Week reached out to Health Canada, a senior media relations officer, Tammy Jarbeau, said “Provinces have taken different approaches to establishing workplace testing programs and Health Canada does not specify the details.”
Jarbeau continued, “Provinces establish their own initiatives such as the Restrictions Exemption and the Alberta Rapid Testing programs, and provide direction on usage of the tests. Please contact the Government of Alberta with any questions relating to these initiatives.”
Speaking with Lakeland This week, MLA Hanson said he was unfamiliar with the letter sent by the Cold Lake Chamber, but stated he supports efforts to make sure facilities are staffed and continue operating at their maximum potential, which remains one of his biggest concerns.
How rapid tests are being used is out of his realm of general knowledge, but the question of the difference between tests offered by private clinics and the testing kits distributed by Alberta’s Chambers of Commerce is one he says he will look into further.