National Post (Latest Edition)
The hottest new job perk: Skipping the COVID testing line
You can’t watch the news in Ontario right now without seeing a horror story about a long wait in a COVID testing line. There are new nightmare tales every night of daylong waits with cranky kids and testing centres that hit capacity before their doors even open for the day.
But if for some reason you flew over one of those lines in a helicopter, if you filmed it and zoomed in, if you identified every one of the tired, stressed out parents, workers and children desperately waiting for a swab, there’s one group you probably wouldn’t see: employees of Ontario Power Generation.
The provincially owned energy giant set up its own, privately-run COVID testing sites starting last week for employees and their families. It’s the ultimate job perk in a pandemic, a chance to skip the lines and get the kids back to school with no sick days taken and no painful delays while waiting for the results.
“We are providing our employees and their families with an alternative means of getting necessary testing, so that they can return to work or school as quickly as possible,” the company said in a statement. “By OPG engaging a private vendor to conduct testing for us, it helps reduce the number of people in line at assessment and testing centres."
The two private OPG sites are each scheduled to run for about two weeks, according to the company. One was opened Sept. 23, the other Sept. 28. Each has a maximum capacity of 60 tests per day.
In the grand and dysfunctional scheme of things in Ontario, that’s not even a drop in the testing bucket. The province performed 38,000 COVID tests on Monday. If both OPG sites run at full capacity for the entire two weeks, they’ll still only perform a total of 1,680.
Still, the very idea of private testing sites during the greatest public health crisis of our generation is unsettling to some. “From the perspective of this (publicly owned) corporation and its employees, this may be seen as a job perk,” said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a physician and health equity activist. “But what does it say about us as a society when we’re making COVID testing during a pandemic a job perk for some people … while others have to literally take a half day to a full day of sick time, that is often unpaid, to stand, in a line (to get a test)?”
OPG is not just any company either. It only has one shareholder: the Government of Ontario. That matters to Dosani. “Are we as taxpayers paying for a separate testing system for employees of a ( publicly owned) corporation?” he asked. “And would those taxpayer dollars be better spent just improving the system for the public?”
For Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, there are pros and cons to private testing. The risk is that private centres won’t follow the same guidelines for testing as the publicly run facilities. “The positive of it is we need to support our workers,” she said.
Right now, every family in Ontario is playing a massive game of runny- nose chicken. The first sign of a sniffle or a sore throat can mean a week or more of waiting for a test to come back — if you can get one in the first place — without school or daycare or effective work.
“I can see where that incentive comes from,” Hota said. “It all comes down to, is it being done appropriately?”
Ontario Power Generation says its employees were told to use the clinics if they require a test and are “unable to obtain one in a reasonable timeframe through Public Health.”
The tests are all performed by health-care professionals, the company said, and every aspect of the process — from sourcing the reagents to processing the samples — is privately done.
The National Post asked the Ontario government how many private testing sites are currently in operation, who has the authority to run those sites, and whether the government has an opinion on the publicly owned OPG opening one for its employees. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health promised a response by Thursday.
For Dr. Zain Chagla, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Mcmaster University, what matters is that the private labs use the same criteria — for testing, reporting and prioritization — as the public ones do.
“At the end of the day, you may see many of these pop up,” he wrote in an email. Right now, there is definitely a market to be served.
WE’RE MAKING COVID TESTING DURING A PANDEMIC A JOB PERK FOR SOME PEOPLE.