Kitchener-Waterloo

Confusion over who can use COVID-19 test kits meant for businesses, but being used by parents

Rapid COVID-19 test kits meant for businesses in Waterloo region have been used by parents in other cities, including Toronto, to test students before they go to school. Communitech, a tech hub in Kitchener hosting the StaySafe program, says it will explain to people the kits are to help keep workers safe.

'Intent of the program is to bring the rapid kits into workplaces,' says Matthew Bondy of Communitech

Rapid COVID-19 tests are seen in this file photo from a Montreal boarding school. A program called StaySafe in Waterloo region offers rapid tests to businesses, but some of those tests are being picked up and used by parents in Toronto and other cities. (Charles Contant/CBC/Radio-Canada)

The people behind a program in Waterloo region that offers rapid COVID-19 test kits to local businesses say steps will be taken to ensure the kits go to businesses and not parents who want to test their children at home.

The StaySafe Screen program is a partnership between the federal government, Ontario government and Region of Waterloo to offer the kits to business owners so workers can be regularly tested when they're not showing symptoms of COVID-19.

But CBC News recently reported parents in Toronto were signing up to be "ambassadors" to obtain the test kits, then using them to test their children.

One of the parents is Sam Kaufman, of Toronto, who said he was frustrated the province didn't provide rapid testing to schools. He said he became an "ambassador" through the StaySafe Screen program.

"You may not be able to prevent a classroom from going home, but hopefully you prevent many kids from getting sick and the outbreak getting out of control," Kaufman said.

Communitech, a tech hub in Kitchener, is the host of the Stay Safe Screen program and people pick up the kits in person at Communitech's office in the downtown core.

Matthew Bondy, Communitech's vice-president of external relations, said he understands why parents would be eager to use the kits for their children, especially those aged 11 and under who cannot yet be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"But I do want to emphasize that the intent of the program is to bring the rapid kits into workplaces, to keep businesses open and workers safe," he said.

On Wednesday, Communitech confirmed in an email that the provincial government "reached out and worked with us to ensure that the ambassador program was in line with the mandate given for getting this program off the ground in the first place, which was to get kits in the hands of business owners and employees of businesses in our community."

How the program works

For people to get the test kits, they sign up to be "ambassadors" for their workplace. They can then apply online and ask for a certain number of kits. The website said the ambassadors could use the free rapid test kits "at your own discretion."

The questionnaire didn't ask people what company they work for. Instead, it asked:

  • How would you use the rapid tests you will receive as a StaySafe Ambassador?
  • How will you use your position as a StaySafe Ambassador to tell others about rapid testing?

Bondy said he didn't want to speculate on how parents in Toronto or other cities are getting the kits meant for Waterloo region businesses.

When asked specifically about Kaufman's situation in a follow-up email, where the Toronto father says he was upfront about the reasons he wanted the kits, Bondy replied, "that is something we will explore and that it does not fit with the intent of the program."

He said they would be making it clear to ambassadors going forward the purpose of the kits.

"What we're going to try to do is just make sure that we communicate really clearly to all stakeholders, including parents, that look, we understand there's a big appetite out there for this form of [personal protective equipment], but the goal of this program is not to provide it to any groups outside their workplaces. [It's] to keep businesses open and workers safe," Bondy said.

"If we have to look at some enforceability pieces to make sure we govern that process properly, then we'll look into that."

Program ambassadors frustrated

People who signed up to be ambassadors and who were upset by Bondy's comments expressed frustration on social media.

"It never indicated anywhere on the application that the tests were for businesses or workers. I assumed it was made available for community safety," Meg Ruttan Walker wrote on Twitter.

"We (StaySafe Ambassadors) didn't have to get them under false pretences, so next they're going to blame the program volunteers. Instead of the incompetent provincial government," wrote the business Open Sesame in Kitchener.

"Stop the blame! I bluntly stated on the forms that I will be using them to test my child and my family and they approved it! We are in this together and want to end COVID," wrote Elena Weber-Kraljevska.

Letter to ambassadors

On Wednesday, Communitech sent CBC K-W an email that was passed on to people who are ambassadors that also states the kits are to be used in workplaces.

"Because we live in Ontario, the program has to follow the medical guidance of Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore. Dr. Moore and the province of Ontario have not yet embraced broad-based rapid testing for schools and community groups," the letter said.

"So while we have the province of Ontario's support to distribute rapid test kits to workplaces through the StaySafe program, that's where the Ontario government's comfort zone currently ends for rapid tests."

The email goes on to say some of the communication the ambassadors received "clearly implied that general community group use was a key part of the Ambassador program."

"We want to apologize for this — that was our fault, not yours. Our program volunteers work so hard to keep you updated and supplied — this was an honest mistake by volunteers who were not fully aware of the program parameters," the letter says.

In another statement later Wednesday, Communitech clarified who they meant by "volunteers."

"StaySafe is a program fully run by volunteers. Volunteers who were overseeing the entire operation knew that they were pushing the limits of its mandate by opening eligibility up to ambassadors — but felt it was a risk worth taking to protect the community at large and give parents much-needed peace of mind. The parents who signed up to be ambassadors are not at all to blame," the updated statement said.

In an emailed statement to CBC K-W, Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott, said the StaySafe program was "designed with the specific purpose of protecting workers as businesses safely reopen and stay open."

She added, "No additional restrictions have been placed on this program. Rather, we expect agencies to adhere to program parameters as with any government program."

Ontario reviewing asymptomatic testing: Moore

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore said the rapid test kits were meant for businesses and "it's application in the school system wasn't following the rules used by that program."

"We are reviewing asymptomatic testing and its possible application to schools across Ontario, especially in high-risk settings where there's been previous outbreaks or where there's high risk of community spread. And we are reviewing the best means of implementing an asymptomatic testing strategy for our schools," Moore said during a media briefing Wednesday.

"I hope that parents can understand that our schools are remaining safe. We've got excellent protocols in place and that the addition of an asymptomatic testing strategy will only further build confidence and support our school system. So that absolutely is being addressed."

When asked why it appeared businesses were being prioritized over schools, he said the current testing strategy for outbreak management "is responsive, is excellent" and he said he is "very happy with our ability to limit outbreaks in the school setting at present." 

With files from Samantha Beattie

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