A northwestern Ontario mining company has stepped up with a new process to fight the pandemic.
New Gold employees at its Rainy River Mine 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 on Sept. 17 during a webinar hosted by the Sudbury branch of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum.
For New Gold, a company with an open-pit mining operation northwest of Fort Frances, it has meant the company can continue working with confidence that their employees and contractors are working in a 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. 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 mine, which has a residential camp for workers.
Beth Borody, New Gold's director of sustainability, 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," she said.
"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.”
It was in April that New Gold learned that the device, being marketed by Guelph-based Precision Biomonitors could perform 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 authorized 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.
Borody 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.
"You do need to have both a nurse and a lab tech to do the swab," she explained.
There were a few growing pains, such as one series of tests that showed several false positives. They quickly re-tested to ensure they were getting the correct results and the laboratory technicians were getting the right experience.
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 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."
Borody added that when the testing began in mid-summer, it was being done with nasal swabs, something that she described as "not comfortable.”
In recent weeks, New Gold has switched to taking oral samples from the mouth. She said the tests are still accurate and the company is able to access oral swabs more easily than nasal swabs.
With the arrival of the new school year, Borody said more employees have volunteered for testing to ensure they are safe to be with family, friends and fellow workers.
"So, we are seeing quite a positive attitude towards testing."
Borody said, 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.