Manitoba’s deputy public health officer insists few people are catching COVID-19 at work and says even some cases where people do contract the virus at work should not be considered community transmission.
“These majority of these cases related to workplaces, it’s not the workplace that is the issue,” Dr. Jazz Atwal said Friday during a news briefing.
“It’s things surrounding it, like coming to work, leaving work, you’re friends with others at work, getting together at a social gathering, or having a little bit of a breakdown in protocols that workplaces have put in place.”
Atwal said the transmission of COVID-19 during a lunch break at work would not constitute workplace transmission. He also said contracting COVID-19 from someone in your carpool on the way to work also would not be considered workplace transmission.
According to a public health memo obtained by CBC News, 72 Winnipeg workplaces were suspected of having clusters of COVID-19 cases from March 1 to May 19, with 39 of those clusters identified in May alone.
Atwal said the public may not understand what a cluster represents, insisting the presence of multiple cases in the same workplace does not mean transmission is occurring within that workplace.
“Just because there is a case in a workplace, or two or three cases, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a cluster related to transmission at the workplace,” he said.
“The definition of a cluster in a workplace is three or more cases from three different households, regardless of where they acquired it.”
Atwal said Manitoba has data to share about workplace transmission, but not in a form he described as presentable to the public.
He said the province is working toward making more workplace-transmission information public, along with a parallel effort to allow workplaces get a handle on COVID-19 infections.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for public health said it is “finalizing workplace cluster guidance for employers” that includes “information on how to assess the risk in the workplace.”
Public health also said it was finalizing guidelines for employers to organize the data they collect, the spokesperson added.
Social epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said this is better late than never, 14 months into the pandemic.
“I think it would have been better if we had targeted it earlier, but the fact that they’re addressing I think it’s positive. I do think it’s too late.”
Disclosure varies by company
There is nothing to compel employers to disclose COVID-19 infections. Some do, like Crown corporation Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, which proactively discloses cases at the retail stores it operates.
Other companies readily acknowledge infections when inquiries are made.
For example, both of HudBay’s Manitoba mines were hit with multiple COVID cases this month: 14 in Flin Flon and two in Snow Lake.
“Some cases appear to be the result of workplace transmission,” wrote a spokesperson for the company. Other cases were traced back to community spread.
Hudbay says several workers are in self-isolation and there was no significant impact on the operation of the mines.
“Our focus remains on keeping our employees, their families and our local communities safe,” wrote the Hudbay spokesperson.
The company has begun conducting rapid PCR testing for Hudbay employees at its Flin Flon health station.
In Winnipeg, Bockstael Construction said work on the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s Ellen Douglass ambulatory care clinic was recently shut down for two days as a “proactive measure” after a worker tested positive.
Workers from two sub-trade companies were sent home to self-isolate and 10 eventually tested positive.
“Bockstael has taken every possible precaution throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including the proactive closure of our site while a deep cleaning was completed,” spokesperson John Bockstael in an emailed statement.
Bockstael said masks are mandatory on site, multiple hand-washing stations are available and breaks and start times are staggered to reduce congestion.
In other cases, there are disputes between labour and employers about the presence of infections.
Workers United Council Canada, which is trying to unionize hundreds of Canada Goose employees in Winnipeg, claims the company is being secretive about infections.
“There’s just this this common theme of of not being transparent, not being particular, not offering that health and safety information,” spokesperson Jo Anne Pinera said in an interview.
Canada Goose did not confirm the presence of any cases at the company. Vice-president Alex Thomson said the manufacturer communicates safety information to its employees and works closely with provincial officials.
No Manitoba businesses closed due to COVID concerns
On Thursday, Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province will use health-hazard orders to close businesses where there are multiple cases of COVID-19 and a risk of transmission.
Roussin said this is a power the province always had and said it has been used before.
On Friday, a public health spokesperson said Workplace, Health and Safety has not shut down any Manitoba businesses due to the COVID-19 risk since the start of the pandemic.
A new public health order, slated to go into effect Saturday, compels businesses to allow employees to work from home, whenever possible.
Atwal did not say whether the province would enforce this order.
“We are trusting employers,” he said. “Most employers are good people and I think everyone’s going to do the right thing to make sure that they follow that order.”