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An Amazon employee works in the stow area at the Amazon fulfillment centre in Brampton, Ont., on July 21, 2017.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Peel Public Health has ordered Amazon Canada to cancel all shifts at its facility in Brampton, Ont., after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

The shutdown is believed to be the largest of its kind in Canada. Since October, 617 workers at the facility have contracted the virus – 240 in the past few weeks, said Lawrence Loh, the region’s Medical Officer of Health. Testing showed 10 of those recent cases were linked to more contagious variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The facility has about 5,000 workers, Dr. Loh said. Friday’s order requires those who work at the Brampton site to self-isolate for 14 days effective just after midnight. The news release about the order did not say what would happen after March 27.

The facility has been in outbreak since October, Dr. Loh noted, although earlier clusters were considered contained. But the rate of growth in cases accelerated more recently. “At that point, it was no longer contained, and presented a broader risk to the community,” he said in an interview.

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This is the first time Amazon caseload numbers have been officially disclosed. The Globe and Mail has made repeated requests about case counts to provincial ministries, to Amazon and to Peel Public Health; all declined to provide detailed numbers. The Globe has also spoken with several Amazon workers in Ontario who raised safety concerns about their workplace, including an inability to properly distance and a lack of detailed communication about outbreaks.

In a statement late Friday, Amazon spokesperson Dave Bauer said the company’s recent round of mandatory testing showed a positivity rate of less than 1 per cent, and that the company sees little risk of spread within the facility. He said Amazon does not believe the data support closing the warehouse, and will appeal, adding that the order may have some short-term impact on Canadian customers.

Dr. Loh’s office said in a statement the current public-health investigation has determined “that high-risk exposure to COVID-19 for everyone working at Amazon Heritage [Road] cannot be ruled out.” It said the rate of COVID-19 infection across Peel has been decreasing while the rate inside the Amazon facility has increased significantly.

“Essential workers remain the backbone of our community, and I continue to urge both employers and policy makers to provide paid sick leave to anyone impacted by COVID-19,” Dr. Loh said, adding that issuing the order was a “difficult” but necessary decision.

The Amazon statement said associates who have been placed in quarantine will be paid. It did not specify whether that includes temporary workers.

Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer at the Warehouse Workers Centre, said she has been fielding calls for months from workers who are worried about on-the-job safety. She said she hopes the shutdown will spur Amazon to allow more physical distancing at work and put less emphasis on productivity rates and more on its workers’ well-being.

The world’s largest online retailer has come under fire in the United States and Europe over its health and safety record during the pandemic. The state of California is investigating Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers. Last month, New York’s attorney-general filed a suit that claims the company failed to protect workers at two warehouses.

Since COVID-19 cases spiked in the fall, Peel Public Health officials have cited warehousing, manufacturing and distribution centres as leading sources of outbreaks.

In January, a Canada Post facility in Mississauga experienced what was then the largest known workplace outbreak in Ontario. More than 300 workers at the federally regulated mail carrier’s distribution facility, which employs 4,500 people, tested positive for the virus. Peel directed all evening shift workers to self-isolate for two weeks.

The region’s mayors and top doctor, along with several public officials from municipalities across Ontario, have called for greater support from the province – including paid sick days, rapid testing and stronger enforcement of preventive measures – for essential workers, who typically have low wages and no benefits.

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