Manitobans most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes wary about returning to work

Manitoba's COVID-19 curve is getting to be as flat as the Prairies, and that could suggest a loosening up on some restrictions currently in place. But some Manitobans with chronic health conditions and disabilities are concerned that heading back to the workplace too soon will leave them vulnerable.

Those with chronic illnesses, underlying conditions at higher risk for significant COVID-19 effects

Neil Johnston, president of the Lung Association of Manitoba, says there are concerns among people with chronic illnesses about the prospect of having to return to workplaces. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Almost four times as many Manitobans have now recovered from COVID-19 than are currently known to be infected with the illness, according to the province's latest numbers. Manitoba's disease curve is getting to be as flat as the Prairies.

Those positive signs may hint that a return to some form of normalcy could be just around the bend. But those with chronic health conditions and disabilities face a different reality: most of the six COVID-19-related deaths in Manitoba to date have involved people with pre-existing conditions.

That leaves some Manitobans concerned that heading back to the workplace too soon will leave them vulnerable.

"There's definitely some folks out there with really some strong anxiety about returning to work," said Neil Johnston, a registered respiratory therapist who is also president and CEO of the Lung Association of Manitoba.

Manitobans learned more Wednesday from the provincial government about plans to gradually reopen parts of the economy.

That likely means at employees in what have been designated "non-essential" sectors may soon be called back to work.

But with the threat of a second-wave of coronavirus rearing its ugly head, as it has in other jurisdictions that relaxed rules, people at risk of suffering the most severe health outcomes have concerns.

That includes seniors, immune-compromised individuals, those with heart or lung conditions, and the roughly 20 per cent of Manitobans with breathing issues, Johnston said.

"They may not have confidence in their co-workers," he said.

"Are they really following the rules? Are the premises being cleaned properly? If they are going to be providing customer service, are they going to have the proper [personal protective equipment] and physical distance?"

Eager to get back

It isn't so much the return to the office that concerns Sharon Evans, the recipient of a double lung transplant.

"I am very anxious to get back to work because being sick, I've been sitting here two and a half years before my transplant, not being able to do anything, and now I am back in that situation again," she said.

Sharon Evans, a double lung transplant recipient and legal assistant, says her greatest concern about heading back to work is taking crowded buses. (Submitted by Sharon Evans)

Evans, 65, spent a total of three and a half years out of work total due to a lung condition. She had surgery in January 2019, and in February this year she was finally able to ease back into work part-time as a legal assistant at a downtown firm.

Weeks later, Manitoba's first COVID-19 cases emerged. Being immuno-suppressed, Evans decided to step away again in mid-March. Shortly thereafter, she and half of her co-workers were laid off as public health orders and closures started to ramp up.

When rules relax again, she's confident her workplace will continue to implement proper physical distancing and sanitizing rules. "They've been fantastic," she said.

It's the bus trips to the office that make her nervous.

"The more people that are going back to work, obviously, the busier the buses are going to get again," she said.

"You've got nurses and doctors and health-cares aides in hospital, and they're the ones that are busting their asses because you decided to go sit on a crowded bus with no face mask."

Choosing between 'health and employment'

People with disabilities may also face more severe health complications if they do contract COVID-19.

That's on the minds of many who may have to go back to work before the threat is completely gone, says the accessibility services co-ordinator with the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities.

"We do have a lot of members who are being extra cautious, and the fear with going in to [work] early would be just being more vulnerable," said Rosalie Best, who also has muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair.

"Folks are going to worry [that] if they don't go into work right away if their boss asks, they might lose their job," Best said.

"And for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses it's often not easy to find employment, and so it's kind of choosing between their health and employment."

Rosalie Best is accessibility services co-ordinator with the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities. (Submitted by Rosalie Best)

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of workers in the grocery, hospitality, hotel and restaurant industries, among others, is trying to ensure employees know their rights.

"There's a lot of people undergoing a lot of anxiety and stress at just the thought of going back to work, especially if your job is working with the public," said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832.

"Employers have to accommodate somebody who has a medical condition or any kinds of workplace restrictions to make sure that they are safe and they're not exposed to a hazard."

'Won't take long to spread again'

One thing employers can do now is plan to have workplace risk assessments done to help mitigate potential health hazards, he said.

Johnston echoed that point. Tuesday was the annual day of mourning for workers who have died, developed illness or been injured on the job, and it serves as a helpful reminder right now, he said.

As an example, he pointed to asbestosis, a health condition developed by some construction workers. It's been around for ages and is preventable, yet it persists as a "major occupational killer," partly due to a failure to follow workplace safety best practices, said Johnston.

"That's an example of being complacent and not following the rules, having an employer who's not really supplying the PPE or the education," he said.

"With COVID-19, this is where we really all have to play our part, because it won't take long to spread again if we're not following the proper procedures."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.