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The man was admitted to Brampton Civic on March 27 and placed on a ventilator when his symptoms became worse.

Lindsay Lauckner/The Globe and Mail

A housekeeper at a hospital in Southern Ontario has died of COVID-19, becoming the province’s first known casualty among those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

William Osler Health System announced on Thursday that a long-time environmental-services employee, a man in his 50s, had died. The employee was one of more than two dozen health care workers in Ontario who are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to new numbers obtained by The Globe and Mail.

“It’s a very difficult day for all of us," said Brooks Fallis, medical director and division head of critical care at Brampton Civic Hospital west of Toronto, which is part of the William Osler family.

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As part of the medical team that cared for the man, Dr. Fallis got to know him and his wife and family, who were isolated at home and unable to visit him in the hospital during the two weeks he spent in intensive care hooked up to a ventilator.

Hospital staff made every effort to connect the man’s family to him through video conferencing at his bedside, Dr. Fallis said. “Even though they can’t reach out and touch their loved ones,” he said, “they can see and talk to them.”

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The man developed symptoms of the disease on March 20 and isolated himself at home. He was admitted to Brampton Civic on March 27 and placed on a ventilator when his symptoms became worse.

“Unfortunately, in spite of all of our efforts and doing everything we could possibly do to support him, he died this morning,” Dr. Fallis said in an interview. “He was otherwise healthy prior to coming into contact with COVID-19."

Environmental-services workers can be at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases because they are responsible for cleaning patients’ hospital rooms. However, an investigation revealed that the man likely acquired the virus in the community and not at work, the hospital said.

Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said this is the first time a health care entity has reported the death of an employee to his organization since the pandemic began. Another physician, whose name The Globe and Mail is keeping confidential because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said he had been bracing for such a scenario because the mortality rates for intensive-care patients are typically 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

A total of 27 health care workers in Ontario were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, including nine in intensive-care beds, according to figures obtained by The Globe. In all, 622 health care workers were sickened with the disease, accounting for one in 10 cases in the province.

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The figures were compiled by the province’s 34 public-health units. However, there is no consistency on what information the health units collect or how they report it. A random survey by The Globe, for instance, found only one health unit that reported the number of physicians who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Toronto Public Health says 31 health care workers in the city have the disease, including 12 physicians.

Dr. Gandhi, the head of the OMA who practises medicine in Stayner, about 145 kilometres north of Toronto, said he is worried about his members, many of whom think they can handle anything.

“They will go into environments where they could potentially contaminate themselves, and they will do that willingly knowing they have an obligation to look after their patients,” he said in an interview.

Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses Association, wants to know what it is about the working environment for health care workers that might be contributing to so many becoming sickened with COVID-19.

“We are very concerned about the level of personal protective equipment that is being provided to health care workers,” Ms. McKenna said in an interview.

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She does not know exactly how many of her members are among those health care workers who have COVID-19. The data gaps are enormous, she said. Some public-health units are testing all workers exposed to the coronavirus. Others are only testing those who develop symptoms, she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fallis said he and his team have no choice but to carry on. “This is something our staff is going to carry with us as we continue to try to provide patients with hospital care,” he said.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam is urging Canadians to keep following strict physical distancing measures as she released sobering projections on how many Canadians could die of COVID-19. The Canadian Press

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