Dozens of COVID-19 clusters suspected at Winnipeg workplaces before public health announced crackdown

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.

72 workplaces suspected as clusters during third wave, with 39 in first 3 weeks of May alone

Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday the province has closed workplaces before due to the threat of COVID-19 transmission. Manitoba public health could not immediately say how many. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

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.

The province attributed more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 among workers at the Exceldor poultry plant in Blumenort, Man., last fall to community transmission. (Google Maps)

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.

Dozens of workers at Maple Leaf's processing plant in Brandon, Man., contracted COVID-19 last year. The province stated there was no evidence there of workplace transmission. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

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.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson


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