COVID-19 – Rapid Antigen Testing

Following the country’s move into the COVID-19 Protection Framework, seemingly away from the elimination strategy, and the growing threat of Omicron and other variants which may circumvent the protection afforded by vaccination, COVID-19 may become part of daily life for most New Zealanders, and infections may become more and more prevalent for the foreseeable future. 

In light of this, Rapid Antigen Testing (“RAT”) may be seen as another tool for businesses to implement in fulfilling their health and safety obligations and potentially as a means of reducing the risk of severe disruptions to the workplace resulting from widespread infections and illness.

In this article, we provide a brief overview of what RAT is, and outline factors that businesses should consider when deciding whether to implement RAT in the workplace.

What is RAT? 

RAT is a screening tool which can quickly identify cases of COVID-19 infection.  Whilst PCR testing (being the nasopharyngeal swab) can take between 24-48 hours to provide a result, RAT provides a result within 10-15 minutes.

While it still requires a nasal swab, RAT is less invasive than PCR testing, and it is significantly cheaper.  Additionally, all New Zealand businesses can now use RAT within the workplace as a screening tool for staff.  Where an individual provides a positive RAT result, they must self-isolate and undergo a PCR test to confirm COVID-19 infection.

RAT can be used as a surveillance tool to detect asymptomatic infection quickly, which can minimise the number of close contacts and reduce the spread of infection within the workplace.  However, RAT should not be used for individuals who are symptomatic or are close contacts of confirmed cases – these individuals should instead obtain a PCR test.

As RAT requires a greater viral load to detect infection, it is not as sensitive as a PCR test, and it may fail to detect infections that are in the early stages.  As such, the Ministry of Health advises that, where RAT is implemented, testing should be undertaken 2-3 times per week to identify infections early and minimise transmission. 

Additionally, it must be noted that there is a risk of false positive and false negative results from RAT testing, which can result in uninfected individuals being required to undergo the more invasive PCR test to rule out infection, or infected individuals being undetected.    

Should RAT be implemented in the workplace? 

Like any other health and safety measure, whether RAT will be appropriate in the workplace will depend on the nature of the risks presented by COVID-19. 

Businesses will need to consider the risks of infection/transmission of COVID-19 within the workplace, and the potential impact this could have on the business, its customers, and its suppliers.  Businesses will also need to consider whether these risks are sufficient to warrant requiring staff to undergo RAT testing, which still requires a nasal swab (albeit significantly less invasive that PCR testing) and as above will require frequent testing.

Where there is a low prevalence of COVID-19 within the community, the risk of uninfected workers providing false positive results (and the resultant invasive PCR testing to confirm infection) may outweigh the benefit of businesses undertaking regular RAT to screen for undetected infections.  In contrast, where there is a high prevalence of COVID-19 in the community, the benefit of routine RAT screening is likely to outweigh the imposition on workers.

Of course, businesses will also need to consider the commercial practicality of implementing routine RAT.  Not only does RAT take time and resources away from standard operations, the cost of RAT kits can be significant depending on the volume and frequency of testing.  Mainfreight, which acted as a test case for RAT feasibility studies last year, advised that it paid $12-14 per RAT kit.  Additionally, we understand there are currently supply issues, with businesses struggling to obtain sufficient RAT kits given the high demand.  In early February 2022, the New Zealand Government announced that the country would have access to up to 55 million RAT kits within the next two months, and that 123 million RAT kits have been ordered through to June 2022, which should improve the availability of RAT kits for businesses in the near future. 

How can a business implement RAT for its workers? 

If a business is considering implementing RAT in the workplace, workers must first be consulted on the proposal to implement routine RAT, and their feedback should be considered before any RAT policy is implemented.

In drafting a RAT policy, businesses should ensure that it cover key areas such as:

  • what roles will be required to undergo routine RAT
  • how frequent testing will be
  • what happens where a worker provides a positive test result
  • isolation protocols where a positive test result is confirmed by a PCR test
  • potential consequences where a worker refuses to undergo RAT.

If you have any questions regarding the use of RAT in the workplace, or would like any assistance in implementing a RAT policy, please feel free to contact us on 0800 339 002.

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