A Northern Ontario mining company has stepped up with a new process to fight the pandemic. New Gold Inc. mine employees near Rainy River are being tested for COVID-19 and are getting their results within a couple of hours of their test thanks to the use of a Precision Biomonitoring testing system.
Details of the system were outlined Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Sudbury branch of CIM (Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum).
For New Gold, a company with a remote open pit mining operation north of Rainy River, it has meant the company can continue with confidence knowing that their employees and contractors are working in a safe COVID-free environment. A person with a runny nose or a headache can immediately be tested and isolated without shutting down operations or forcing the isolation of several other workers.
Like many mining operations, New Gold shut down the mine back in mid-March amid concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that many employees had enjoyed out-of-country travel and needed to quarantine.
By early April, after establishing new screening and sanitizing procedures, the company began a gradual ramp up at the remote mine, which has a residential camp for the workers.
Beth Borody, New Gold's director of sustainability, was one of the webinar speakers. She said her company wanted to be sure it could continue operating safely.
"Just like many other companies in the area, when COVID hit, we hit the ground running figuring out how do we protect our employees, our contractors and the surrounding community. We have a huge obligation to all of those stakeholders," said Borody.
"So we did what many of you did, putting in screening protocols, all of the mask wearing, social distancing, sanitizing, working with communities to ensure they had the proper PPE to protect our employees.”
She said it was back in April that New Gold learned about the device being marketed by Precision Biomonitors out of Guelph, Ont. New Gold learned the device was able to do a COVID-19 test quickly, reliably and accurately, but before it could be used, Health Canada needed to give approval.
She said when approval was granted on June 30, New Gold was the first company given approval to use the device. Two weeks later the new device was at the mine camp and within a week, the new testing protocol was set up, said Borody.
She described the device as being about the size of a Bluetooth speaker. It has the capacity to run nine test samples at a time. The testing takes about 65 minutes, she said.
"You do need to have both a nurse and a lab tech to do the swab," she explained.
She added there were a few growing pains, such as one series of tests that showed several false positives. She said they quickly re-tested to ensure they were getting the correct results and the laboratory technicians were getting the right experience.
She said the test protocol involves screening all employees and contractors who are returning to the work site after any absence longer than 36 hours. Actual testing is done on any worker who volunteers for testing, on anyone showing any of the conventional COVID symptoms and anyone who does not pass the initial screening when they arrive at the mine property. The screening includes questions for anyone who has travelled outside the immediate area in the past 48 hours.
"We don't prohibit people as long as they are asymptomatic, from entering the site. Once their swab is taken, they are allowed on site, wearing a mask, following all of the procedures and protocols that we have. And then their results are given to them by a nurse."
She said all employees sign a waiver for testing so that any essential health information can be passed on to public health authorities.
"If anyone is positive, they are referred to public health and public health will then do all the contact tracing," said Borody.
Borody added that when the testing began in mid-summer, it was being done with nasal swabs, something that she described "not comfortable.” In recent weeks, she said New Gold has switched to taking oral samples from the mouth. She said the tests are still accurate and added the company is able to access oral swabs more easily than nasal swabs.
Borody said with the arrival of the new school year, more employees have volunteered for testing as they want to ensure they are safe to be with family members and friends as well as with crew members at work.
"So, we are seeing quite a positive attitude towards testing," she said.
Borody added that in time, testing of all employees and contractors will be done on a regular basis, especially now as the number of COVID cases appears to be on the rise again.