The best way to fight COVID-19 in the workplace is to start with the basics, focus on what you can do now and communicate clearly with your employees.

Those were some of the key takeaways from a panel discussion hosted this week by Communitech, which is working with a variety of partners to pilot the successful StaySafe rapid antigen testing program for small- to medium-size businesses.

The online Ask Me Anything (AMA) session included Dr. Jim Chung, Chief Medical Officer for Air Canada, and lawyers Neena Gupta and Tushar Anandasagar of Gowling WLG’s Waterloo Region office.

Asked for their top tips for employers, all three speakers emphasized the need to have COVID health and safety protocols in place and to focus on what can be implemented now.

“Really focus on available strategies,” said Anandasagar, an associate with Gowling who specializes in employment and labour law. “It’s very helpful to focus on education and making sure that you’re sending across the proper message, backed by science, and really focusing on what can be done, rather than feeling as though there are not sufficient options available.”

Those available options include wearing effective masks, social distancing, washing hands and rapid antigen testing, said Gupta, a partner with Gowling.

Asked whether employers could mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, Gupta said the answer is not clear cut.

“There may be possibilities, particularly where you’re dealing with vulnerable people – and I mean health care, child care, day care – where you may actually, as an employer, be able to say, ‘In order to work in this workplace you need to be vaccinated,’” said Gupta.

But she urged employers to be “practical” and to “use the carrot and not the stick.”

“First of all, let’s work on the theory that we have a duty to have a safe workplace – that’s one of our primary obligations under Occupational Health and Safety (legislation). And let’s figure out what we absolutely really need to do to maintain that safe workplace. It doesn’t always have to be vaccinations; we can talk about proper masking, social distancing, rapid antigen testing, PCR testing – a whole gamut of tools to help keep us safe, including better HVAC, better hygiene.

At Air Canada, with a current workforce of more than 20,000, Chung said the company has focused on basic health protocols, from cleaning to mask-wearing, social distancing, contact tracing apps, as well as rapid antigen testing.

“We’ve had a lot of uptake,” he said, “averaging about 40 to 50 per cent of voluntary uptake on employee rapid screening.”

Chung said Air Canada is promoting vaccinations among employees by partnering on vaccination clinics in places like Montreal, Peel Region in Ontario, and Coquitlam, B.C.

The company is also running an internal campaign that asks employees to share their reasons for getting vaccinated.

“You’re getting it for your grandma, you’re getting it for your cousin, or your partner or because you’re a cancer survivor,” he said. “And so we encourage people to post their stories about why they’re getting the vaccine and that really gained a lot of traction and really just fed on itself.”

The panelists also responded to a question about whether the recent forced closings of some small businesses due to COVID outbreaks might deter some owners from implementing detection measures, such as rapid antigen testing.

“You have to understand that our public health officials don’t want to close down businesses,” said Gupta. “It is truly only if they believe that’s necessary to protect the health and safety of your workers.”

Chung and Anandasagar said rapid antigen testing will do far more to help a business stay open.

“If you’re not doing that screening, you’re letting it fester in your workplace,” said Chung. “It’s actually going to compound the issue – you’re going to have a bigger problem.”

Asked about privacy concerns regarding the collection of personal health information, Anandasagar suggested that employers only collect and retain the minimal amount needed.

“I think the purpose needs to be tailored and the retention of information needs to be tailored for a particular situation,” he said. “But I think the foundational principle is that you need the minimum necessary information possible in order to achieve the desired result.”

Gupta also emphasized the need to provide employees with sufficient time off to receive a vaccine and to recover from any side effects that might arise.

“I’m really encouraging employers to use the carrot and not the stick,” she said. “And we can call it a vaccination incentive policy or revision to your sick leave policy but, essentially, allowing people paid time off to get their vaccine. For many people, particularly those who are on a lower hourly scale, it’s really hard to afford taking a few hours off to get the vaccine.” 

To learn more about rapid antigen testing, visit the StaySafe page on the Communitech website.