After exactly two months of life in the “lockdown” zone of Ontario’s COVID-19 restrictions, Dr. Lawrence Loh says the explanation for Peel Region’s stubbornly high case counts has become clear.
“When you delve into it, you realize that it is workplace outbreaks,” said Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, in an interview with CBC Toronto.
“In a nutshell, if you want to solve the ongoing plateau in Peel, you really need to address transmission within the essential workforce.”
Peel’s robust manufacturing and industrial sector, which is largely centred in Brampton, has accounted for 39.7 per cent of the 204 total workplace outbreaks in the region since the start of the pandemic.
The next closest sector is retail, which accounts for 13.7 per cent of workplace outbreaks.
With most forms of contact between residents strictly limited since the region entered a lockdown on Nov. 23, there are growing calls for changes that could slow the spread of COVID-19 in industrial settings.
Loh is among those asking the province to refine its list of essential workplaces permitted to stay open during lockdown, with the hope that temporary closures or restrictions could help the region drive down its case counts.
“We have requested that the provincial government really look through the essential business list a little bit more carefully,” said Loh.
Peel does not publicly share detailed information about the workplaces where outbreaks are occurring, though Loh suggested that many of them might not be considered truly essential.
“There are certain things where it’s just kind of like, ‘Yeah, you know, that could probably be offline for a four-to-eight week period,'” he said.
Temporarily closing some of those facilities could help reduce “the clusters that are forming around certain workplaces,” added Ameek Singh, a registered nurse with the local outreach group Homeless Health Peel.
“Knowing that Peel Region is a central hub for distribution and logistics for Ontario, if not Canada … we’re going to have impacted individuals coming from these sectors,” Singh said.
Brampton expanding testing, access to isolation sites
The effects of industrial workplace outbreaks have been most acutely felt in Brampton, where the total number of novel coronavirus cases has far outpaced the more populous Mississauga.
Brampton also leads Peel with a 15.2 per cent test positivity rate at last count, which is about three times higher than the provincial average recorded during most of the past week.
Front-line health-care workers say people in those industries make up a significant portion of residents in need of testing and other health-care services.
Efforts to support industrial workers have increased this week, including the opening of a new COVID-19 testing site in Brampton.
Dr. Raj Gewal, medical director of the testing operation at Embassy Grand Convention Centre, said the site was designed specifically to serve workers in industrial settings.
Efforts to cater to those workers include same-day appointments, longer-than-normal hours of operation and targeted advertising of the testing site in high-risk workplaces.
“We’ve already had a slew of people coming in this morning from workplaces,” said Grewal on Friday, the site’s first day of operation. He said workers at factories in northeast Brampton were among the first people to show up for testing.
Brampton also opened new isolation centres this week in partnership with the provincial government.
“We’re seeing a lot of individuals coming from some of the warehouses,” said Clinton Barreto, a nurse practitioner who works at Peel Region’s isolation centres.
Barreto expects the opening of new isolation centres in hard-hit Brampton will lead to “an absolute onslaught” in demand for the service, since many industrial workers in the city do not have space to safely self-isolate in their own homes.
Ontario has no plans to review essential workplace list
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour did not indicate any plans to review the existing list of essential workplaces.
Spokesperson Harry Godfrey instead highlighted the province’s inspection and enforcement regime, noting that 61 workplaces have been shut down by inspectors during the pandemic.
“We have been clear employers need to ensure the health and safety of all of their workers. If that cannot be guaranteed, we will not hesitate to stop unsafe work,” Godfrey said in an email.
While the calls for a restricted list of essential workplaces appear unlikely to be answered in the short term, public health experts in Peel say other measures, including universal paid sick days and protection from evictions, are needed to slow the virus and protect workers.