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More than 400 COVID-19 cases at Amazon warehouses in Ontario amid concern over industrial spread of virus

Posted: December 19, 2020

(December 18, 2020)

By: Brodie Thomas, Calgary Herald

Amazon distribution facilities around Canada’s biggest airport have seen more than 400 COVID-19 cases, a source said Thursday, as concern mounts about the virus’s spread in industrial workplaces that face few government restrictions.

Many municipalities in Ontario are now under sweeping lockdowns to try to curb the pandemic’s second wave, banning most in-person shopping and restaurant dining. Similar rules have been imposed in many other provinces, too.

But they tend not to affect factories, food-processing facilities and distribution centres feeding the surge in online retailing, generally considered essential industries.

And yet, with the daily number of cases remaining high cross Canada, the limited amount of data released publicly suggests those workplaces are a significant source of COVID-19 spread.

The two Amazon “fulfillment centres” in Brampton, Ont., one in nearby Caledon and one in Mississauga — all close to busy Toronto Pearson International Airport — have had a combined total of about 400 cases, said a source familiar with the data.

The region’s public-health department does not identify the specific location of outbreaks, although five of the top six workplace outbreaks of COVID it lists were at “distribution centres.”

Amazon officials could not be reached for comment.

According to an analysis by the union-led Ontario Health Coalition, the number of cases in the manufacturing sector in that province soared by 76 per cent over a recent two-week period.

We have a kind of half-shutdown in which there is still a huge amount of person-to-person contact

In Alberta, businesses with “large congregant” facilities, most not affected by that province’s COVID restrictions, account for 25 of 64 current outbreaks there, according to journalist Nora Loreto .

Those kind of workplaces are far from the sole source of coronavirus spread, with long-term care facilities, for instance, accounting for many more cases. And no one suggests the industrial plants be shut down entirely.

But they’ve been given too little attention in the pandemic fight, argues Patrick Brown, Brampton’s mayor and a former provincial Conservative leader.

“It has been overlooked, and intentionally so,” he said. “I’ve been told by senior officials in the federal government and the provincial government ‘Oh, we could never shut down those sectors. There wouldn’t be food in the grocery stores across Canada, or there wouldn’t be medical supplies that come in from the U.S.’

“Canada’s supply chain is dependent on these essential workers in Peel Region,” he said. “But we’re not giving them the support they deserve.”

Peel, which includes Brampton, is one of the epicentres of COVID-19 spread in Canada, with a rate of 2,067 cases per 100,000 population, easily the highest in Ontario. Brampton accounts for almost two-thirds of infections in the region.

Most of Peel’s workplace outbreaks have been in food processing, transportation and logistics facilities, Peel public-health department data indicate. Close to Pearson and the 401 expressway, four of nine jobs depend on “goods movement,” according to a 2017 report .

Brown said he can’t reveal the names of businesses affected, citing Peel public health policy.

With multi-generational families in many of Brampton’s homes, the chance for transmission from warehouse to the community is high, said Brown. Meanwhile, the city has not had a single case tied to a restaurant, the mayor said.

Brown called for a number of measures to address the outbreaks. Brampton needs government help to set up an isolation centre, basically a hotel that can house people who have nowhere to quarantine safely after testing positive for COVID; there should be more Labour Ministry inspections of plants to ensure they’re keeping employees safe; and workers need better access to sick days so they’re not coming to work ill, he said.

The Brampton-based Warehouse Workers Centre — a Canadian Union of Postal Workers offshoot — has called for similar action, as well as more testing of industrial workers.

While many retail businesses have been closed entirely, the industrial workplaces allowed to stay open are given little guidance on how to curb the pandemic, said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition. The result is a patchwork, some employers being responsible in their safeguards, others not, she said.

“We have a kind of half-shutdown in which there is still a huge amount of person-to-person contact and huge spread of the virus,” said Mehra. “And it’s going to be prolonged.”

Shifting Canadians’ shopping behaviour increasingly online may not be the safe option it appears to be, argues Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, whose members include many restaurants and stores forced to close.

“One of the things I worry about is: Are we closing off the wrong end of retail?” said Kelly.

But part of the trouble is a lack of detailed, public data to determine what are the most likely sources of COVID-19 spread. Ontario’s statistics on outbreaks — often defined as two or more cases originating from a single source — are one example. They indicate outbreaks at nursing homes have produced by far the largest number of cases, with seniors’ residents being next highest.

But almost as numerous as those at retirement homes were outbreak cases associated with what are called “other types of workplaces.” That means “offices as well as warehousing, shipping and distribution, construction, etc.,” says Public Health Ontario, without further elaboration.

Less opaque information is crucial to informing the public and getting the pandemic under control, said Mehra.

“The state of reporting is actually shockingly bad,” she said. “People need to know how the virus is spread and where it’s being spread … and that just is not happening.”

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