Why some say Canada needs to do more to protect essential workers until COVID-19 vaccine arrives

As Canadians await the rollout of the first round of COVID-19 vaccines, experts say Canada needs to double down on protecting essential workers most at risk of exposure to the coronavirus in the coming months. 

Canada will only have a limited supply of vaccines to start, with just 3 million expected to be vaccinated in the first few months of 2021, but the news of COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon could not come at a more critical time.

Over 400,000 Canadians have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began and the situation in our hardest-hit provinces shows no signs of slowing down. 

The percentage of COVID-19 tests across the country that have come back positive during the past week has skyrocketed to 7.4 per cent — up from 1.4 per cent in mid-September and 4.7 per cent in early November. A rising positivity rate can signal that cases are being missed and more people could unwittingly be spreading the virus.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we still have to get through the tunnel to get there,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont.  

“You also don’t want to be in a situation where you have a raging fire that’s going on and when you’re trying to roll out a vaccine, you’re doing it in a setting where the hospital is overwhelmed and health-care workers are getting sick.”

While much of the focus on public health messaging throughout the pandemic has been focused on individual actions, experts say Canada isn’t doing enough to protect those most in need of support in the coming months. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alberta positivity rate tops 10 per cent

Of all the COVID hotspots, Alberta has the biggest fire to put out at the moment, and this week asked the federal government and the Red Cross to supply field hospitals to help offset the strain COVID-19 is having on the health-care system.

There, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive hit an astonishing 10.5 per cent on Friday.

COVID-19 cases in Alberta are growing at such an explosive rate they’ve even outpaced Ontario, a province with 10 million more people, for the first time in the pandemic — with cases in Edmonton alone totalling more than those in Toronto and Peel Region combined

“If you think this is a hoax, talk to my friend in the ICU, fighting for his life,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said during a Facebook livestream Thursday.

“If you’re thinking of going to an anti-mask rally this weekend, how about instead send me an email, call me all the names you want, send me a letter, organize an online rally.” 

Yet while much of the focus on public health messaging throughout the pandemic has been focused on individual actions, experts say Canada isn’t doing enough to protect those most in need of support in the coming months. 

Ontario, Quebec see surge in workplace outbreaks

While elderly Canadians are most at risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19, totalling close to 90 per cent of all deaths, essential workers on the front lines are facing a worsening situation.

For the first time in the pandemic, active outbreaks in workplaces in Canada’s biggest provinces have outpaced those in long-term care facilities — accounting for 30 per cent of the outbreaks in Ontario and 40 per cent in Quebec, as first reported by The Globe and Mail

While limited information is available on exactly where the spread of COVID-19 is occurring, Ontario’s ministry of health said in a statement to CBC News the hardest-hit industries include construction, manufacturing, mining, warehousing and transportation.  

WATCH | Essential workers talk about being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

Essential workers — from grocery store employees to truck drivers — talk about their experiences on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic share how it has affected them and why they do it. 11:43

Because of the disproportionate risk of exposure they face, the union for workers in food retail, manufacturing, long-term care, home care and security said Friday that frontline workers should also be among the first recipients of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Workplaces are a big deal,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University. 

“There are people that need to go to work, unfortunately, for us to support society, and again we have to be willing and able to give them at least some measures of safety in their workplace.”

Paid sick leave key to stopping spread of COVID-19

Chakrabarti says one area that could help address rising transmission rates in workplaces is more paid sick leave for those who are unable to miss work due to COVID-19. 

Unlike policing people’s contacts in their own homes, it’s a problem policy could tackle, he said.

“Workplaces are things that are really important because you can only do so much to keep things safe.” 

If people are going to decide between putting food on their table … or going into isolation … they’re going to show up to work sick.– Dr. Zain Chagla

Chakrabarti says mask wearing and physical distancing aren’t always possible in certain situations in workplaces, especially those that involve workers in close quarters indoors — as evidenced by outbreaks in meatpacking plants, warehouses, and mines.

“Many people are financially unstable and they’re scared because if they do have to go off work, they’ll end up losing income,” he said. Undocumented workers may also be hesitant to speak up about symptoms for fear of being deported

“So you have a lot of these kinds of factors that I think are barriers for people getting tested.”

Chagla says more targeted education, oversight and internal audits to control COVID-19 transmission are needed in high-risk workplaces, in order to ensure compliance and accountability. 

“There’s certainly tons of essential workplaces that will continue to have issues unless people actually intervene and do this type of stuff,” he said. 

Last month, the federal government created Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit to give up to $1,000 of support to workers with COVID-19 over two weeks, but Chagla said more could be done. 

“You have to incentivize people to get tested,” Chagla said. “If people are going to decide between putting food on their table and paying their rent, going to work or going into isolation … they’re going to show up to work sick.”

Isolating, outreach better than ‘finger wagging’

Chakrabarti says another way to protect essential workers is through the creation of more dedicated isolation facilities for those recovering from COVID-19. 

“One big place that amplification is happening is in large families,” he said. “So if you have a place for people to have their meals covered and they can isolate away from their family, that’s going to really help to reduce amplification of the cases that we’re seeing in workplaces.” 

Chakrabarti says the “condescension and finger wagging” in public health messaging across the country against individual actions isn’t always effective — especially nine months into the pandemic.

“Community outreach often helps,” said Chakrabati, who is also a member of a recently formed South Asian task force to connect with and inform people in Peel Region.

“I think that a lot of the focus right now is on people. ‘Hey, you stay home, stay home, stop partying,’ that kind of stuff. Whereas we don’t hear a lot of what’s happening in these workplaces.” 

“This is going to be a problem throughout the entire pandemic,” said Chagla. “Because they have to stay open.” 

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