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People wear face masks as walk through a shopping mall in Montreal on Oct. 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

COVID-19 infections in workplaces have been surging for six weeks in Quebec, according to new data from the province’s public-health institute, a troubling trend that has contributed to the tightest pandemic restrictions in the country.

Data from the Institut national de santé publique du Québec details a mountainous spike leading into the second wave of the pandemic across factories, grocery stores and restaurants, and spreading from urban centres into rural towns. It’s the most comprehensive information on workplace outbreaks released in Canada to date.

More than one-quarter, or 29 per cent, of all new COVID-19 cases in the second week of October were linked to workplace outbreaks, according to the data from the INSPQ and the province’s health ministry – a data point that few provinces have made available.

The report was released this week as public-health officials plunge the province into a prolonged lockdown in an attempt to curb workplace outbreaks. Premier François Legault announced on Tuesday that Quebec is keeping venues such as restaurants, bars and fitness centres closed for an extra month in most of the province.

“Now we have to decrease [cases] and unfortunately we have to keep bars and restaurants closed for another month,” Mr. Legault said.

The shutdown, which launched on Oct. 1, has spurred criticism from local business organizations and owners who have questioned the province’s decision to implement the lockdown.

But the INSPQ reporting, divided into 18 weekly snapshots from June 14 to Oct. 17, trace a steep spike in work-related infections beginning in September. As the second wave hit the province, workplace-related cases climbed from less than 500 each week into the thousands.

Not including workplaces where outbreaks ended, the number of outbreaks for the most recent week jumped by 30 per cent to 501 from 386, and related cases climbed 35 per cent to 2,061 from 1,536.

The data also dives into individual industries. Of the nearly 900 individual workplaces that had outbreaks from mid-June to mid-October, the hardest hit sectors include manufacturing with 174 workplaces affected, retail with 157 and restaurants and accommodation with 120.

But in recent months, weekly restaurant outbreaks hovered near the bottom of the list, reporting 10 outbreaks during the week of Oct. 17, far below the most affected industries, including manufacturing with 37 outbreaks and 111 cases, and retail with 22 outbreaks and 57 cases.

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The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, which has been calling for better access to data on workplace outbreaks, said businesses that interact directly with customers invested in preventative measures after the first lockdown in the spring and have closely followed provincial COVID-19 guidance, and the data prove that those efforts were effective in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

“These businesses feel that they did everything right and, at the end of the day, the message they’re getting is that to protect the overall population, we’re asking them to remain shut," said Michel Leblanc, president and chief executive officer of the CCMM. “But if [the province] communicates this data well, then it helps people accept the decisions and the measures and it helps reassure workers and the public that these types of businesses and stores are safe.”

Most outbreaks involve fewer than five cases, which suggests that there are fewer opportunities for transmission in the workplace, or that infections are being brought into the business by the community, said Matthew Oughton, an infectious-disease specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital.

“Perhaps this is saying that people are generally better protected when they’re on the job rather than when they’ve finished for the day and gone home,” he said.

Data on COVID-19 workplace-linked transmission across the country is patchwork at best, with the INSPQ’s reporting publicizing the most comprehensive information on workplace outbreaks to date.

In Alberta, workplace outbreaks represent about 15 per cent of cases, provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said on Monday. Alberta Health also publishes the names of workplaces with continuing outbreaks on its website, but does not include the number of cases. In other provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, individual public-health units offer a hodgepodge of outbreak information. In the Toronto and Peel Region, some of the hardest-hit areas in the country, city councillors and mayors have repeatedly called for enhanced transparency on cases linked to workplaces.

But accessible public data on workplaces is one of the most important tools to helping quell the pandemic, according to Dr. Oughton.

“If you want control of this disease as it’s in the community, then you need accurate data and, almost more importantly, speed," Dr. Oughton said. “This data does you very little good if it’s published three months later. You need to see this data in real time or as close to it as possible."

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