Red Cross providing rapid COVID-19 testing to firefighters working across northern Ontario

By Colleen Romaniuk
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Sudbury Star

Red Cross has partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry this summer to provide rapid COVID-19 testing for firefighters in northern Ontario. 

To help ensure the virus does not impact this summer’s fire season, Red Cross has teams spread across 18 different locations in the north that can provide the Panibo Rapid Antigen screening for firefighters and support staff. 

All sites were operational by June 23. The program, which will run to the end of August, has been well-received so far by fire personnel. 

“This partnership was created so that Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) staff can focus on the jobs they have to do. Fire can be a stressful career, and we’re hoping to be able to eliminate any additional stressors due to COVID-19,” said Red Cross Operations Lead Tyler Beaton. 

“Each of our teams is comprised of two public health specialists and one emergency care worker. Our teams facilitate the swabbing and process the test results, which takes between 15 to 20 minutes.” 

Red Cross received a request from the ministry and the government Ontario to support this program. Beaton said that from initial planning to the time teams were deployed on the ground to provide testing, it took about two weeks. 

Testing sites have been established in Thunder Bay, Habliburton, Cochrane, Timmins, Wawa, North Bay, Hearst, Chapleau, Kenora, Red Lake, Geraldton, Armstrong, Dryden, Sault Ste. Marie, Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, and Pickle Lake. 

Firefighters and staff can take the voluntary tests between one to four days per week per site depending on fire activity and number of staff in the area. 

Roughly 50 to 60 tests can be administered per site. 

“Depending on how busy fire seasons are for ministry staff, they can be doing quite a bit of traveling. If we can weed out anyone who could potentially be carrying COVID-19, we can protect entire communities,” said Beaton. 

“Last year, the pandemic was a huge learning curve for anyone. Now that we know more about asymptomatic carriers and variants of concern, this adds another layer of protection for everyone.” 

Although vaccination rates are steadily increasing, Beaton said it’s not time to let our guard down.

“Our healthcare in the north is not as easily accessible for people compared to those in the Greater Toronto Area, for example. Being able to nip these things in the bud is very important,” he said. 

As a retired fire ranger himself who worked through fire season in Cochrane last year, Beaton knows some of the risks associated with the job. 

“You never want to be that person who brings COVID-19 into a community or onto an aircraft or helicopter or onto a base camp,” he said. 

“My best advice to any firefighters out there would be to participate in the program. The tools are available to keep everybody safe and these resources are for them.” 

Based on conversations between the Red Cross and the MNRF, Beaton said the program could be extended depending on the fire season. 

“If the season is really extended and they are finding a lot of benefit in the program, it could run past August, but currently, we are expected to demobilize at the end of that month,” he said. 

He extended his appreciation to his Red Cross teams both on the ground and behind the scenes. 

“We’re definitely working tirelessly in the background. Everyone has been doing a great job, the program has been well-received by MNRF staff, and we’re happy to be here to support them.”