Rapid Antigen Testing

08 October 2021

While rapid antigen testing is widely used in workplaces in many countries, currently there is a Ministry of Health Order in place, preventing the importation, sale or use of such kits in NZ.  Finally, after much lobbying by business leaders, the Government has announced it will trial rapid antigen testing in some workplaces. It is unclear as to how long it may be before such testing is approved for general use.

The main criticism of antigen testing is that it is less reliable than the current PCR testing conducted by Ministry of Health, but although PCR testing is an effective means of detecting low levels of infection, such tests require processing in specialist laboratories which takes much longer and therefore they are not really an effective tool for widespread use in the workplace.

However, it is now recognised that rapid antigen testing is reasonably reliable in detecting higher levels of infection, which occur around the time an infected person may be about to transmit the disease.

Following are some key points about antigen testing:

  • The test involves a simple nasal swab (there are saliva versions as well).
  • In Australia, the testing kits may only be administered by a registered health professional at Point of Care. However, in practice, many employers have employees complete the test themselves under the supervision of COVID Marshalls (trained employees of the employer) who support employees in doing the test.
  • Compliance oversight is provided by a third-party provider, which remotely monitors the on-site testing process.
  • In most cases, every person who comes into the workplace is tested every day (employees, visitors and contractors). Entry to the workplace is barred until the person returns a negative result.
  • On average it takes about 12 mins to process the test, but a number of people (8-10) can be tested at the same time. Start times may be staggered to minimise any backlog. Employees are usually asked to come in early to undertake the testing. Note: in NZ this must be regarded as work time and paid accordingly.
  • The third parties typically charge about $35.00 per test ($17.25 for the test kit, $10 per month per employee for the App and rest for monitoring).

The costs of high intensity testing are not insignificant.  However, rapid antigen testing will no doubt form an essential part of the risk management strategy for many employers because they are an effective tool for widespread use in the workplace.  The costs that may otherwise be incurred by staff having to isolate, the workplace being shut down, the necessary cleaning, the loss of revenue and damage to brand loyalty, are very significant.