With the rising number of Omicron cases, demand for COVID-19 testing continues to increase at an overwhelming rate for testing laboratories and personnel. Public health official Dr. Marie-France Raynault reports that laboratories’ daily capacity of 30,000 tests was exceeded by almost twice that number in late December and early January, when their capacity ranged from 47,000 to almost 60,000 tests daily. As of January 4, new conditions for PCR testing mean that tests are reserved for individuals in high-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care homes, prisons, homeless shelters, and Northern and remote communities. Quebec public health encourages the general public to turn to rapid antigen testing instead whenever possible. Those who exhibit symptoms but cannot get access to a PCR test have been asked to assume a positive result and self-isolate.
For workers who are not included in the priority categories for PCR testing but are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, relying on rapid testing poses a major problem, as many employers require a positive PCR test result from laboratories as proof of infection. The testing shortage makes it difficult for workers to access support, including sick leave and income replacement where needed, especially for those who are unable to work from home and limit their social contacts. With limited tests available and asymptomatic positive cases extremely common, the risk of workers returning to the workplace while infected is greatly increased.
Further, rapid testing frequently yields false negative results: “a positive result is quite reliable […], but a negative one may simply mean that there is not yet sufficient viral load to be detected, and that the virus is still incubating in the person’s body.” If taken too early after exposure to the virus, a single negative rapid test result could still mean that a person is infectious. For increased accuracy at detecting COVID-19, it is usually recommended that symptomatic individuals take a second test 24 hours after receiving a negative result from a rapid test – for many workers experiencing pressure from employers to return to work, accommodating multiple days between rapid tests is simply not an option.
Quebec labour minister Jean Boulet urged employers on Twitter to comply with public health guidelines and forego PCR test results on January 4, later stating: “I am strongly convinced of […] employers’ capacity for accommodation.” When asked what employees should do if an employer continues to require PCR test results as proof of COVID-19 for paid sick leave, Boulet only said that details would be provided by the ministry by January 6, including tools available through the Quebec Workers’ Safety Board (CNESST) website. Under the Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety, employers are required to adopt necessary preventative measures to protect workers against the risk of contamination, but how they choose to carry out these obligations has been left to the discretion of the employer. Despite Boulet’s claims concerning the “good will” of employers, there are no concrete guidelines that ensure essential workers are adequately protected. Urging workers to assume good intentions on the part of employers is government negligence – Quebec’s essential workers require concrete measures for their health and safety.
Under the Ministerial Order 2021-090 of December 20, 2021 and the new measures decreed by the Quebec government, allowing employees to work from home is a mandatory measure for companies, organizations, and public administration. This excludes employees whose presence is essential for the continued activities of said company, organization, or public administration. With the limited quantity of rapid tests available to individuals, companies may still submit a request for rapid testing kits to Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, but a minimum of 50 face-to-face employees are required to qualify for this request. Workers’ safety has been left in the hands of their employers with no specific regulations that hold employers accountable.
600,000 rapid test kits were distributed in Quebec starting January 11, with another 31.5 million tests expected by the end of this month. As rapid testing supplies become more accessible to the public, Quebec’s workers need assurance that their employers will comply with public health guidelines in the workplace. Paid sick leave, as well as eliminating the requirement of PCR lab results, will limit opportunities for workers to be exposed to COVID-19. Check the CNESST website for regulations and guidelines relating to COVID-19 or to report workplace offences related to the virus, and if possible, join unions that seek to support the best interests of employees. Ultimately, the failings of the federal, provincial and municipal governments are responsible for the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workers – make your voice heard by finding and contacting your local members of parliament here.