Ontario, Quebec address workforce vaccinations as infection rates rise

·5 min read

TORONTO — Calls are growing for provincial governments to prioritize vaccination rollout for essential workers amid a third wave of the COVID-19 virus across Canada.

The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters on Wednesday called on the Ontario government to put essential workers at the front of the line for vaccinations to protect the safety of manufacturing employees, just hours before Premier Doug Ford instituted a provincewide stay-at-home order.

Ford said Wednesday afternoon that vaccinations would be available for anyone over 18 in hot spots such as Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region next week.

Manufacturing workers have been told that the earliest potential inoculation is June, the CME said, while their U.S. counterparts have largely completed vaccinating their employees.

The organization wants the province to prioritize essential production workers right after front-line workers and seniors. It's offering help to speed the vaccination rollout, including using industrial sites and resources to deliver vaccines.

Time is of the essence, they say, because hospital beds are becoming overrun with patients under 60 years old — a dramatic shift from elderly patients and long-term care home residents who had the most severe reactions to the virus in the pandemic's early days.

"The new long-term care is the essential workplace and it will continue to be the new long-term care despite lockdown," said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases specialist in Hamilton and an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

Between March 15 and 21, people under the age of 59 made up 46 per cent of the province's intensive care patients, the Ontario government said. Between Dec. 14 and 16, the same age group represented just 30 per cent of cases, suggesting a higher proportion are becoming infected.

Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton's office said it does not have data on how many Ontarians who can’t work remotely have contracted the virus, but said less than 20,000 of the province's 338,000 cases were contracted in workplaces as of March 26.

In Quebec, companies including CAE Inc. have signed on to operate vaccine hubs or otherwise participate in corporate vaccination programs to accelerate immunization, beginning May 1.

Health Minister Christian Dube said Wednesday the province will unveil full details on Thursday, adding that "hundreds of businesses have contacted us" about participation in the program. He previously said Quebec will ensure training is in place to ensure vaccination at businesses is the same quality as in the public sector.

Even with progress in immunization rates, doctors and labour groups say it will take more than faster vaccinations to protect Canadians without the luxury to work from home.

They say the recent spike in cases shows it's also important to roll out paid sick leave, keep workplace inspections frequent and make it easier for employees to speak out about health risks.

This reality is frightening for Narada Kiondo, a food delivery courier in Toronto, who believes workers like him need faster access to the vaccine and paid sick leave.

He had a COVID scare last year after a colleague of someone he encountered tested positive for the virus. Kiondo took unpaid days off work to isolate and await test results and spent much of it worrying about his finances and what would happen when he was back on his bike.

"It's scary … There are times I feel unsafe," he said. "It's really hard to not touch anything when going into many condos and you have to press elevator buttons all the time."

Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers Centre advocacy group, is constantly hearing these worries from Brampton, Ont., labourers.

"It's really hard for them to keep safe and physical distancing, especially if we are talking about the manufacturing sector or the factories, warehouses, industries where either people are working on a belt or people are in close proximity to each other," she said.

"These workers definitely need support. They don't want to be left out in the dark."

While quicker vaccinations done at workplaces and on company time top her wish list, Kaur wants the province to keep up its increased inspections and be even more thorough. In Alberta, a union representing employees at some of the largest meat-packing plants in the country has said there needs to be a discussion about making the COVID-19 vaccine more readily available to essential workers.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said earlier this year that workers at large operations such as the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., and the JBS Canada plant in Brooks, Alta., shouldn't have to wait too long.

The two plants, which together normally process about 70 per cent of Canada's beef supply, were hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020.

The plants brought in safety measures that included temperature testing, physical distancing, and cleaning and sanitizing before they returned to normal operations.

Yet packing-plant employees are still at risk, Hesse told The Canadian Press in January.

"In a Cargill or a JBS or other manufacturing facility in Alberta, there'll be a couple of thousand workers in a big box still working in relative proximity,'' he said.

Cargill said at the time it was working with health authorities and medical experts to make sure its employees have access to vaccines when they become available, as long as the first priority was for health-care workers.

Some companies are implementing additional incentives: JBS USA said it will offer all its employees a $100 bonus, including those in Brooks, if they get vaccinated in the future.

— With reports from Sidhartha Banerjee and Bill Graveland

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press