Workplaces that remain open in Ontario continue to drive many transmissions of COVID-19, as more contagious variants sicken entire families, prompting medical experts to recommend further restrictions on businesses to help bring cases under control.
The Progressive Conservative government shut down some non-essential construction last week, such as on hotel sites, but most workplaces in manufacturing, construction, warehousing and logistics remain open. In Toronto, data show that among the businesses with more than a dozen COVID-19 cases in recent weeks are a skin care firm, a Ford car dealership, a maker of office furniture, a condo developer, a police training college and a candy maker.
Citing “the most challenging health crisis of our time,” with younger people falling ill, buckling hospitals and record case counts, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table on Tuesday recommended narrowing the list of those that stay open to “only truly essential indoor workplaces,” in order to bring cases down and reopen safely as soon as possible.
For now, some local public-health units are stepping in. Toronto and Peel Region issued new orders this week to shut down workplaces with outbreaks – after a similar move in B.C.
Across all three waves, Laveena Munshi, critical-care physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, has had people who can’t work from home admitted into her ICU. They’ve included those from factories, grocery stores and construction, along with personal support workers.
Now, “with the variants of concern being much more destructive, and having a higher propensity to tear through families – if it’s not them, it’s their family members.”
Dr. Munshi says she and her colleagues have never been busier; as of her most recent shift in her ICU, about 70 per cent of patients were on ventilators. She sits on Ontario’s science advisory table, which also called for paid sick leave and accelerating vaccinations for essential workers, measures the advisers say will help to bring down cases.
Cases in Ontario, along with hospital admissions and ICU occupancy, have hit pandemic highs. This week, hospitals had to transfer a record number of patients in the province. With such extreme pressures on health care, doctors have said it’s crucial to prevent as many news cases as possible.
The Globe and Mail reached out to more than a dozen industry associations and large and small employers – some of which are or have recently experienced outbreaks – to ask about workplace transmissions and additional measures to curb them.
Some employers, already struggling with the strain of changing restrictions, fluctuating demand, reduced revenue, scaled-back operations and in some cases, workers falling ill, contend they have taken measures to keep workers safe. They are turning to rapid testing, better PPE or – soon, they hope – on-site vaccination clinics.
Metrolinx, a regional transit agency that operates GO Transit, reduced service levels by about 50 per cent as ridership plunged. It has no plans to reduce further, in part to ensure that essential workers can get to their jobs.
Last week, the agency had 14 additional workers test positive for COVID-19. (Most recent cases didn’t come from workplace transmissions, it says, but were among people working from home, or getting it from family members). As of Tuesday, another 22 workers did. To date, 121 workers have contracted the virus, of a total work force of more than 4,300 people.
“The variants are just a unique beast, and we have to look at them like a new disease,” said Anne Marie Aikins, emergency information officer and spokesperson. The agency has already implemented more than 40 safety measures, and she said the recent spate of cases “is very disheartening.”
She said they can’t scale back much further and maintain services. But they are changing practices: closing off lunch rooms, encouraging workers to take their breaks outside and purchasing medical masks.
In housing, Danielle Feidler, senior vice-president of brand experience at condo developer Tridel, said the company has introduced rapid testing, with more than 7,000 tests conducted since March. As well, “we support the recent decision for increased inspections and enforcement to keep everyone safe, and accountable,” she said.
The Globe asked employers and industry groups about voluntary, temporary shutdowns, just until pressures on Ontario’s health care system ease; none of them said this was under consideration.
Local public-health units are taking action. With rising case counts, large workplace outbreaks and the growth of variants, Toronto and Peel issued new shutdown orders this week to temporarily close businesses with outbreaks where transmission likely happened in the workplace. Peel will also publish their names on its website.
For months, doctors and scientists have been urging the Ford government to introduce a provincial paid sick leave program to help reduce cases. Currently, Quebec and PEI are the only provinces that offer this.
On Wednesday, for the first time, the Progressive Conservative government confirmed that it would be “supplementing” the federal sick-pay benefit, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford has resisted doing for months.
PC House Leader Paul Calandra suggested the changes would address gaps in waiting time for payment, eligibility and paid time off for vaccinations. Asked why it took so long for Ontario to fix the problems, Mr. Calandra told reporters that, “the pandemic was different in wave one and wave two than it is in the third wave,” citing variants of concern and border issues.
Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa has called for sick pay and painted it Wednesday as a crucial step to reining in the spread of the virus.
“Feeding their families, paying their rent – these are the concerns that they shouldn’t be thinking about.”
With reports from Laura Stone and Oliver Moore
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