Manitoba public health was made aware of dozens of workplaces with suspected COVID-19 clusters in Winnipeg alone before the province’s chief public health officer announced a crackdown on workplace transmission.
A document circulating among public health officials, obtained by CBC News, states that 72 Winnipeg workplaces had suspected COVID-19 clusters from March 1 to May 19.
No fewer than 39 of those clusters came to light during the first three weeks of May alone, according to the document.
On Thursday, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced plans to utilize health-hazard orders to shut down workplaces where there are multiple cases of COVID-19 as well as a risk of transmission.
“This means that a factory, office or warehouse may be ordered to close if we’re identifying transmission in that workplace,” Roussin said Thursday during a news briefing.
“We know businesses for the most part have done a great job of protecting their employees, but they do have that responsibility to ensure employees are following the fundamentals and preventing transmission to ensure now their business continuity and prevent the risk of closure.”
Roussin said the province has used public health orders to close down businesses using health-hazard orders prior to Thursday.
“We didn’t wait on it. We’ve always had that ability,” he said. “It’s been utilized, but we’ve really shifted the focus. Rather than closing sector-wide, we’re going to focus the targeted approach on where we’re seeing transmission.”
Manitoba public health could not immediately say how many businesses have been closed since the start of the pandemic due to the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, questioned whether the province wants to know whether people are getting COVID-19 at work.
Traeger said his union was made aware of 108 COVID-19 cases at a single grocery chain in Manitoba and in every one of those cases, the province ruled out workplace transmission.
“We’re getting tired of hearing ‘no evidence of workplace transmission,'” Traeger said in an interview.
A public health spokesperson declined a CBC News request to state the number of suspected workplace clusters of COVID-19 cases, insisting the request must be analyzed because it “involves more than just providing raw numbers.”
Fourteen months into the pandemic, public health is now “finalizing workplace cluster guidance for employers” that includes “information on how to assess the risk in the workplace,” the spokesperson said.
Public health is also finalizing guidelines for employers to organize the data they collect, the spokesperson added.
Dr. Jillian Horton, a Winnipeg internist who has been critical of Manitoba’s pandemic response, said she doesn’t understand why the province is only now developing these guidelines.
“I don’t understand how at this moment, so far into this catastrophic third wave of the pandemic, a clear picture of what is happening is only now emerging,” Horton said in an interview.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew also assailed the province for the slow movement on workplace transmission.
“The provincial government here in Manitoba has not provided a clear picture of what’s going on in terms of spread in the community and spread in workplaces,” he said.
Roussin said the province will release more information about workplace transmission in the future.
On Thursday, he said about 10 per cent of COVID-19 transmission right now is related to workplaces. He called the number of workplace-related cases significant, noting there’s a risk of employees bringing COVID-19 home with them.
A new public health order, slated to go into effect Saturday, compels businesses to allow employees to work from home, whenever possible.