Managing risk

Can employers use rapid antigen testing?

Can employers use rapid antigen testing to check the COVID status of their staff? Make sure you’re up to speed on the pros and cons, opportunities, and what you can and can’t do with this quick testing method.

Some people with COVID-19 have no symptoms and don’t realise they’re infected. This is also possible – although unlikely – in people who’ve been vaccinated. Because of this, there’s a risk that people at workplaces may unknowingly transmit the disease to others. 

What is rapid antigen testing?

Rapid antigen testing is a screening tool – a quick way of finding out if someone who has no symptoms is infected with the virus, even though they may not realise it.

The test – also known as a rapid antigen point of care test – involves a nasal swab using a small cotton bud that is then placed into a chemical solution. The result displays within 15 minutes, by way of markings on a small panel on the device.

Accuracy of rapid antigen testing

The screening test will detect most cases of COVID-19 but it is not as accurate as the standard test (PCR), for which the samples are tested in a laboratory with results usually available within 24 hours.

Because the rapid antigen test is less reliable in terms of accuracy, a positive test doesn’t mean you necessarily have COVID-19, it means you need to get a PCR test straight away to check the result.

Workplace use of rapid antigen tests

Rapid antigen tests have been used internationally and in some Australian industries for some time to screen employees with no symptoms for COVID-19.

In addition to other features of a COVID-19 Safety Plan (including maximising the number of workers who are vaccinated, ensuring physical distance is maintained between staff wherever possible, and appropriate use of PPE), many workplaces and schools have implemented onsite rapid antigen testing screening. Organisations may engage a third-party provider to manage this process.

Health authorities have published guidance on their websites. For example, NSW Health provides a Framework for the Provision of Rapid Antigen Screening in Clinical and Non-Clinical settings to guide workplaces and schools conducting rapid antigen screening onsite.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has also published guidance including a checklist to help businesses understand the key considerations for the safe implementation of COVID-19 rapid antigen point-of-care testing in their workplace.

To support the safe use of rapid antigen self-tests, the TGA has announced it will make a new regulation to allow companies to legally supply their self-tests for use at home in Australia from 1 November 2021.

Individual tests will require TGA approval and inclusion in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) as for all other testing kits. The TGA continues to work with suppliers and manufacturers of self-tests to ensure:

  • instructions for use are written in a way that all consumers can understand
  • usability testing has been successful
  • self-tests perform satisfactorily against variants such as Delta.

An important step in implementing the use of these tests at home includes enabling any consumer who has a positive rapid antigen test result to immediately have a confirmatory PCR test at a COVID-19 testing clinic.

Frequency of onsite testing

Daily testing would be ideal, as this would help identify positive cases early and avoid transmission at the workplace, but this may not be practical for some employers. If daily testing isn’t feasible, testing every 72 hours (2-3 times per week) is recommended as a minimum for full-time employees. 

Each business will need to determine the frequency of testing based on their risk assessment and COVID-safe work plans in place.

Who can perform the tests?

The TGA has registered a number of devices for use under the supervision of a health practitioner (including a registered paramedic) who has been trained in the correct use of the device and interpretation of results. Devices not approved by the TGA cannot be used in Australia.

Suitably trained staff (such as first aiders or someone trained to carry out workplace drug and alcohol testing) can perform the test if they are supervised by a health practitioner, either in person or via video.

Appropriate WHS and privacy protocols must be in place for onsite testing, and testers must use suitable PPE.

Who pays?

Businesses are responsible for procuring their own test kits and are expected to cover the cost of implementing testing on site. 

This testing is not covered under the Commonwealth’s Medicare Benefits Scheme.

More information 

For more information and guidance, email COVIDtests@tga.gov.au or phone 1800 141 144.

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