SUDBURY -- Thousands of rapid COVID-19 tests are now being made available thanks to a new partnership between the provincial government and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

The COVID-19 Rapid Screening Initiative is providing free rapid antigen tests to any essential businesses that would like to take part.

Businesses are being encouraged to inquire through their local chamber of commerce, even if they are not members.

"As we look at how we can keep small businesses operating, how can we keep them safe, testing is a key part of our strategy," said Prabmeet Sarkaria, Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape.

Twenty-eight chambers have so far signed onto the project. Locally, West Nipissing already has 2,500 of the kits and Greater Sudbury has 50,000.

The Timmins chamber was one of the first to announce the news. And it's music to the ears of Timmins Mayor George Pirie, who has been calling for the distribution of more tests for some time.

'Hopefully, we can see a way out of this'

"This, with the vaccines, the masks, hopefully we can see a way out of this so that's how I feel about it," said Pirie. "I'm very, very positive about this."

Timmins and the Porcupine area have had a tough time controlling the recent spread of the virus. Variants of concern are also an issue.

"I would like to think there's a lot of people that would use this simply because it's a tool that we could use to get people working," he said. "Let's say the province ended the lockdown tomorrow, we'd still be in a position where we wouldn't be able to resume our business. So the sooner we get on with this, the sooner we get out of this."

"I think this just provides another level of safety not only for their employees, but for the community as a whole," said Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Debbi Nicholson.

Nicholson said they already are getting calls from businesses interested in taking part.

"The idea of the test is for asymptomatic people to be tested," she said. "Obviously if you have symptoms of COVID, this isn't the test you're going to be doing."

The mining supply sector is a large chunk of the economy that is already looking forward to receiving the kits.

Mine Connect represents 200 companies across northern Ontario and more than 23,000 employees who rely on the essential work.

"Well if we're talking about fabrication, you've got product lines and there's a number of cogs in that wheel and if one of the cogs is out, it basically stops everything," said executive director Marla Tremblay.

"We think this is a critical part of … making sure that they can stay open, making sure that they're safe, their employees are safe, their customers are safe," said Sarkaria.

The initiative started as a pilot project in Kitchener-Waterloo area and has since expanded across the province.

According to the media release, the kit can be performed anywhere and doesn't need to be sent to a lab for further testing.

Any positive results also still have to be confirmed with the local hospital or health unit in your particular region.

The government said frequent rapid antigen testing increases the chance of finding asymptomatic individuals.