An advocate representing 75 community housing providers across New Zealand says rapid antigen testing and mandatory vaccination for staff are necessary to protect the sector from Covid-19.
It comes as positive cases continue to emerge in transitional, emergency and social housing after Delta first penetrated those potentially vulnerable communities in September.
Community Housing Aotearoa's provider members house approximately 30,000 people nationally across 18,520 homes.
On testing, chief executive Vic Crockford said some providers had experienced resistance from people when presented with the traditional nasopharyngeal swab for surveillance testing purposes.
In one instance, a facility's 90-odd residents all refused nasopharyngeal swabs, reportedly unwilling to experience the discomfort associated with the testing method.
"I think that rapid antigen testing is less invasive, so it's not as scary for people," Crockford said.
Rapid antigen testing, which involves a more comfortable nasal or throat swab, isn't as effective as the nasopharyngeal swabbing, as it tends to be less sensitive at detecting cases in asymptomatic people or those early in their infectious period.
However, their design and turn-around time - as quick as 15 minutes - indicate its value as a surveillance testing method.
Rapid antigen tests are currently being used in three Auckland hospitals and as part of the self-isolation pilot in Auckland, which will inform how it could be used in wider surveillance efforts.
Last month, a coalition of businesses purchased 300,000 rapid tests to give further protection to staff - a move supported by the Government.
Crockford said they had voiced their advocacy for rapid testing with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and were awaiting a response following results of its trials.
She didn't believe community housing had been ignored in its calls for alternative testing methods, but Crockford hoped the sector would be given priority for immediate implementation.
"We just need to understand what the plan is."
Rapid antigen testing wasn't currently offered to people living in Kāinga Ora housing.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson acknowledged the possibility of using rapid tests in community housing settings, but decisions would be made following the aforementioned trials.
Regarding vaccination, Crockford said community housing workers had been overlooked in recent mandates which saw vaccination compulsory for health and education staff, as well as those working in businesses requiring vaccine certificates from customers.
She cited the confusion caused by mandates aimed at public-facing staff with high risk of interacting with the virus - a definition which applied to most community housing staff.
"The biggest thing we're calling for is certainty either way but as a peak body, we advocate for the mandate to apply."
Crockford said the majority of their provider members agreed the mandate should include their roughly 4000 staff collectively.
Extending a mandate to housing tenants had been discussed at a theoretical level and Crockford acknowledged some providers may take that step.
She wouldn't be drawn on whether Community Housing Aotearoa would form a position on the issue.
However, speaking generally, Crockford believed everyone deserved the right to a home.
Asked about vaccine resistance among staff, Crockford had heard varying levels of acceptance from providers - some with almost complete coverage, while others battled an "ongoing anti-vax campaign with their staff".
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said they were not aware of plans to mandate vaccination in the community housing industry.
In recognition of their risk of catching Covid-19, community housing staff were recently included under the 'essential workers' definition - indicating how important the Government considered vaccination among the workforce.
Te Matapihi He Tirohanga Mo Te Iwi Trust advocates on Māori housing matters.
Trust general manager Wayne Knox agreed rapid testing was more attractive than nasal swabs, but it had not been raised by providers as an issue.
On mandating vaccination among staff, Knox said the feedback from providers had varied.
He said one of the biggest Māori housing providers in the country opposed a mandate, saying most of the workforce was already vaccinated and a mandate would only complicate matters and could put people off.
However, he quoted a Waikato provider which said a mandate would make it clear to staff vaccination was necessary.
Te Matapihi's board supported a mandate but wanted support provided to the unvaccinated to ensure the workforce was not critically depleted.
"The Māori housing workforce is already limited, we don't want good people leaving because of this, so how do we work around it?"
Regarding a mandate for tenants, Knox had heard one provider strongly oppose the notion, as it clashed with a tikanga Māori approach.
"To me, I think it would be a step too far not to extend that manaakitanga on the basis [of a mandate], despite the potential risks."