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People leave Walmart during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., Nov. 26, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Nearly 700 Walmart employees across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19 this month, illustrating the challenge of suppressing the virus in workplaces that continue to operate under government restrictions.

As Ontario prepares to lock down on Boxing Day, concern is growing about outbreaks in workplaces such as warehouses, distribution centres, food processing plants and factories, which have been deemed essential. A shortage of details about where these outbreaks are happening makes it difficult to respond, health experts say.

The province and most local health units will not disclose the names of companies with outbreaks, in contrast to Alberta, which lists workplace-related outbreaks online. Many large employers – such as Amazon and Costco – won’t say how many workers have contracted the virus. Walmart Canada is an exception – in December alone, it said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, 699 of its 90,000 workers in Canada reported testing positive. Walmart stressed that safety is a priority, and that staff members who are in close contact with a co-worker who has tested positive in a store are paid while they isolate for two weeks.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is concerned that Ontario’s planned lockdown won’t have a dramatic effect on the case numbers in Toronto and Peel, where most restrictions have already been in place for a month.

“At this point, a lot of the cases are concentrated in people who are not affected by these lockdowns because they have to continue to work,” she said. “Across the province, where are these risky workplaces, and what are we actually doing to make sure that people who need to continue to work are working in a safe environment?”

Top six Peel Region outbreaks

Total number of cases by work sector,

city and date declared

Sector

City

Date

Cases

Distribution

Caledon

Oct. 15

132

Distribution

Brampton

Oct. 15

92

Distribution

Brampton

Nov. 20

52

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 11

38

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 5

25

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 15

21

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: peelregion.ca

Top six Peel Region outbreaks

Total number of cases by work sector, city and date declared

Sector

City

Date

Cases

Distribution

Caledon

Oct. 15

132

Distribution

Brampton

Oct. 15

92

Distribution

Brampton

Nov. 20

52

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 11

38

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 5

25

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 15

21

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: peelregion.ca

Top six Peel Region outbreaks

Total number of cases by work sector, city and date declared

Sector

City

Date

Cases

Distribution

Caledon

Oct. 15

132

Distribution

Brampton

Oct. 15

92

Distribution

Brampton

Nov. 20

52

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 11

38

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 5

25

Distribution

Mississauga

Nov. 15

21

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: peelregion.ca

Workplaces account for more than a quarter of current outbreaks in the province, according to Ontario government data, with farms, large retailers and food processing affected. One category alone, called “other workplaces,” which includes warehouses, shipping, distribution centres, offices and construction sites, has 165 outbreaks – more than schools, hospitals or retirement homes. On Sept. 15, this category had just one COVID-19 case; by mid-December, it had 57.

Workplace cases have occurred at Costco locations and Amazon warehouses, local media reports say, and at construction sites and factories. These workplaces are largely allowed to remain open under the current rules.

Some health experts say this week’s measures do little to improve protections for workers still on the job. Many labour and health advocates want benefits such as paid sick leave for all workers and isolation accommodation for those deemed essential.

The increase in case numbers at workplaces outside health care now “far outpaces” the spread in the general population, according to a recent report by the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group that lobbies for public health care. It noted that cases in the manufacturing sector jumped by 77 per cent in the two-week period to Dec. 2 compared with a 22-per-cent increase in cases broadly.

In the pending lockdown, manufacturing, construction and warehousing will continue.

Ontario has 238 active workplace outbreaks of a total 922 outbreaks in the province, the government data show. By sector, food processing has 26 outbreaks, retail 30, and farms eight.

In hard-hit Peel region, data show that of the workplace outbreaks since September, the six with the most cases are all in the distribution sector.

Transportation logistics and food processing are some of the most affected sectors in the region, Brampton mayor Patrick Brown said. “And it’s not like they’re working less; they’re actually working overtime. These two sectors are hiring new people right now. It’s where we need the emphasis and help right now.”

He called for more rapid testing in workplaces, more aggressive spot checks by public health officials and the Ministry of Labour to see whether public-health protocols are being followed, paid sick days for all workers, and an isolation centre in Brampton.

Workers’ compensation data show that thousands of Ontario workers have got sick after exposure on the job. To date, 8,440 claims related to COVID-19 have been approved, most of which are in nursing and long-term care, agriculture, hospitals and food processing, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

The WSIB data show 23 fatalities related to COVID-19, (which tends to be an undercount, as not all people are covered by workers’ compensation, and claims aren’t always filed). These include personal support workers, migrant farm workers and at least one in food processing and another in mining.

Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, says more oversight is needed for workplaces that remain open.

“To get this meaningfully under control, we need greater support and protections for workers.”

The Ontario government should legislate 14 days of paid sick leave during the pandemic, she said. “Having guaranteed paid sick days are essential, absolutely essential, to curbing the spread of COVID-19.”

Although some data exist for outbreaks by sector, more details are needed.

Canada’s largest city has not yet released high-level data about the types of workplaces with the most outbreaks, even though the Toronto Board of Health passed a motion in late September calling for more transparency on cases in workplaces.

Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said her staff plans to begin releasing data by industrial sector in early January. The public health unit is still settling on the terms under which it would disclose businesses with outbreaks by name, she added.

“There is some very good information coming forward that will help residents of Toronto to understand where public health risks exist so they can take appropriate action,” Dr. de Villa said in an interview on Tuesday.

Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said more transparency around workplace outbreaks is crucial because it helps policy-makers figure out their next moves.

Toronto was among the first places in Canada to collect and publish information about the race, income and living conditions of people who tested positive for COVID-19. That spurred municipal and provincial officials to send mobile testing units into poor, racialized neighbourhoods and set up isolation hotels for infected people living in crowded housing.

“It’s the same thing with workplaces,” Mr. Cressy said. “Data should not only inform the public of what’s going on, but it should drive our government response. That’s why workplace data is fundamentally so important.”

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s University Health Network, said that if Canada’s largest city hopes to tame the coronavirus, officials have to look to what’s driving infections, which is difficult without comprehensive data. Dr. Bogoch said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to name businesses, but more details are essential to figuring out whether broader supports for essential workers, such as paid sick leave, would help.

“Sadly,” he said, “those questions are harder to address.”

The Alberta government posts current outbreaks by employer name on its website. When asked where the largest business outbreaks have been, Alberta Health listed Cargill Canada beef processing (937 cases), JBS Foods (683) and Syncrude Canada Ltd. (102).

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, doesn’t accept the privacy argument for not naming employers with outbreaks.

“In public health emergencies, we’re allowed in the public interest to do extraordinary things. And there is obviously a huge public interest served in telling people where the outbreaks are,” she said. “We’re not talking about revealing the name of your neighbour who has COVID-19. We’re talking about revealing the name of a business at which you as an employee or your loved one or close contact may have been exposed to COVID-19.”

The lack of transparency is a “huge, huge problem.”

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