Eight employees of Toronto Public Health have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are in isolation, prompting the agency to tell most staff at its downtown headquarters to work from home.
The order Sunday night has largely halted operations at the building, including the on-site supervised injection site called The Works. However, a small number of asymptomatic employees are continuing to work at the facility, keeping away from others and issued protective equipment such as masks, because their jobs were deemed essential.
Toronto Public Health is on the front lines of fighting the pandemic in the city and is the municipal agency that tracks COVID-19 cases and responds to complaints about violations of social-distancing orders.
“We have done our best in order to provide for a safe work environment,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical officer of health, when asked about employee concerns with conditions in the facility in the lead-up to this outbreak.
“I think anyone who has worked within an infectious disease outbreak in a public-health setting, anyone who’s worked within the context of health care, knows that it is often very, very challenging to achieve social distancing or physical distancing, particularly a six-foot distance.”
While the agency has not provided a specific number for how many people were affected by the stay-home order, a member of the union local that includes city health workers said that it covers 60 to 70 employees. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
According to the union member, the bulk of the staff working at the facility, at 277 Victoria St., were engaged in case tracing, trying to establish with who people testing positive for COVID-19 might have come into contact, as well as operating the city’s pandemic hotline.
The agency’s stay-home order was issued to staff in an emergency message Sunday evening, in a sharp escalation of the agency’s response as recently as Friday.
In an e-mail to staff late Friday afternoon, sent on behalf of the city’s associate medical officer of health, Dr. Michael Finkelstein, the agency acknowledged that there were “some” positive diagnoses among staff. The message said that “everyone who needs to be in self-isolation is now at home.”
About 48 hours later, the message changed.
“We carefully assessed this situation and at this time we are asking for all TPH staff who worked at [headquarters] from March 20-29 to work from home [Monday] and self-isolate,” read a note to staff Sunday evening, conveyed through the agency’s emergency-notification system.
In an e-mail, Toronto Public Health spokeswoman Lenore Bromley said that the agency “received additional reports … linked to other floors at one of our main offices located at 277 Victoria St.”
The agency says that the building is being cleaned and that a small number of employees have continued to work during the shut down.
“There are some staff at Toronto Public Health who are not symptomatic at this time and who are essential to the response, whose work is essential to the response and whose work simply cannot be done from a remote location,” Dr. de Villa said. “We make sure that we have set them up in a fashion that prevents virus transmission.”
Dave Mitchell, president of CUPE 79, the union local whose membership includes city health workers, said Monday that they are “closely following” plans to reopen the site.
“We are … urging Toronto Public Health to implement heightened safety precautions to protect these staff members and the critical work they do in helping track and manage the spread of COVID-19,” he said in a statement.
Under normal circumstances, the headquarter facility provides a number of services to the public. As well as housing one of the city’s supervised injection sites, it offers low-cost or free dental care and helps homeless people without identification to access services.
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