A COVID-19 outbreak at a Maple Lodge Farms meatpacking plant in Brampton remained unknown to the public for more than two weeks as the local public health unit said nothing, opting to let the company "tell their story from their private business perspective" instead.
That runs contrary to the advice of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, who says the public and the media should be informed about workplace outbreaks when they occur — even if that hasn't been the case so far.
At a media briefing this week, Dr. David Williams said that local medical officers of health should work in concert with the management of the workplaces in outbreak to "fairly quickly" issue a press release that would offer information for workers, family members, and the community. That process can also involve the ministry of labour, or federal agencies, depending on the workplace, he added.
"The idea is to be open with communication and transparency to keep the public informed on the matter," he said.
He also said that as the province moves into economic "recovery mode" it might be time to take another look at how it defines an outbreak in the workplace. For now, an outbreak is suggested when two or more workers become positive for COVID-19 in same timeframe.
But even a single positive case connected to a workplace can prompt local public health officials to immediately investigate the possibility an outbreak and use their discretion to determine who should be tested, including asymptomatic co-workers, he said.
Williams also said he is asking public health officials and data analytics experts to investigate how cases are transmitting in the community and search for clusters of infections. For example, they could find that five people with COVID-19 had been to a single grocery store that had been less than diligent with infection control practices.
And when those clusters are identified the public should be informed of them as well, he said, especially if the setting is a public one, such as a grocery store, and public health officials don't have a ready list of everyone who had been there and may have been exposed. In that case, they would hope those people see media reports and come forward.
"If it's public, you go with a public notification so the public can say, 'I was there, I need to go and get tested, I need to get seen,' and that's only one of the strong reasons we are transparent," he said.
Asked at a press conference if the public should be quickly informed about workplace outbreaks, Premier Doug Ford said yes, "especially at meatpacking plants."
"I think it should be transparent," he said. "I think that public health and the company should just come forward. And it's going to out there — they have hundreds of employees so get ahead of it, be transparent, and tell them what you're going to do to correct the problem."
Meanwhile, Maple Lodge Farms first publicly disclosed the outbreak at its Brampton meatpacking plant in a post on its website on May 4, more than two weeks after the first positive case. On May 7, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) had issued a press release announcing a member had died and 25 were infected.
Jeffrey LeMoine, a spokesman for Peel Region, said the public health unit had no reason to inform the public of the outbreak earlier, because it had determined there was no risk to the public. Instead, it left communication up to the company.
"That's their story to tell, about their standing and how their staff is doing," he said. "We have been working with them and we have agreed to let them tell their story from their private business perspective."
"Our policy is not to go out and indicate that there was a case at every single business we work with," he said.
Asked if public health department sees value in alerting the broader public of the outbreak, LeMoine replied that the contact tracing work of the public health unit is of value, referring to the process by which known contacts of infected employees are notified by the public health unit directly.
However, contact tracing isn't foolproof — Williams has said often said that people don't remember everyone they've been in contact with when they speak with public health officials. He's also said public health units' contact tracing efforts were overwhelmed as of mid-March and are not ready to handle the re-opening of the economy.
Maple Lodge Farms did not respond to QP Briefing's request for comment, but its director of corporate affairs told 680 News that the company believes it was the public health unit's responsibility to publicly report information about the outbreak.
According to Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, there is value in alerting the public about workplace outbreaks — beyond just informing the people who might be directly connected to them.
Routinely informing the public about workplace outbreaks would let Ontarians better understand what kinds of workplaces pose the most risk and individual workers have a right to make choices about their own safety based on that information, he said.
That's even more important because the virus has disproportionately infected and killed people who don't have the type of employment, the money and the socioeconomic status to cloister themselves away, he said.
Not only should workplace outbreaks be publicly reported, the province should be collecting and sharing data about the occupations of people who have COVID-19 to allow policies to be put in place to better protect high-risk workers, said Furness.
"I think the province has a huge burden of responsibility to collect that data, and be transparent about it," he said. "We should know what occupations are risky, because this virus isn't an equal opportunity virus."
For example, he said it broke his heart to read that 10 Pearson International Airport taxi and limo drivers have died from COVID-19. That statistic was reported by their union, not by any public health authority or their employers.
Letting businesses handle the dissemination information about outbreaks in their facilities is "offensive" because it obscures who is getting sick, and the disproportionate impact based on race, sex and socioeconomic status, said Furness.
This week, Williams confirmed the province will soon be directing public health units to ask people with COVID-19 to disclose race-based and socioeconomic data, after initially deciding against doing so, and Furness said he's urging the province to collect and release occupational data as well.
(This story had been updated to include comments from Premier Doug Ford.)