Hard-hit Brampton to open first COVID-19 isolation sites, raising questions about why it took so long

Brampton, one of Ontario’s most consistent and troubling COVID-19 hotspots, will soon be able to offer residents access to a voluntary isolation centre for the first time during the pandemic.

City's lack of voluntary isolation sites a factor in high transmission rates, mayor says

Hotel rooms at voluntary isolation centres are offered to COVID-19 patients, or close contacts, who are not able to self-isolate in their own homes. (Shutterstock)

Brampton, one of Ontario's most consistent and troubling COVID-19 hotspots, will soon be able to offer residents access to a voluntary isolation centre for the first time during the pandemic.

The opening of the spaces is being hailed as both an important development in Brampton's pitched battle against the novel coronavirus, and a reminder of the lack of support for residents of the hard-hit city.

Sarah Kipp, an interim director of the local health services group WellFort, said the city's lack of voluntary isolation spaces so far has been a "significant factor" in Brampton's struggle to suppress the pandemic.

"It will really help reduce the household spread that we're seeing," said Kipp, who runs one of WellFort's COVID-19 testing sites.

The provincial government announced in late December an additional $42 million to create 1,700 new isolation spaces across the province by mid-January. 

Brampton expects to open three sites with 140 beds each with its portion of the funding.

Isolation sites already open in other hotspot cities

Voluntary isolation centres funded by the federal government were opened at hotels in Toronto, Ottawa and Mississauga last year in a bid to help people who don't have adequate space to self-isolate in their homes.

People can qualify for a room if they test positive for COVID-19, or if they are deemed to be at a significant risk of contracting the virus from someone they live with. Food, laundry and internet access is typically included..

The centres are seen by many as an effective tool to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in crowded homes.

In an interview with CBC Toronto, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown called the December funding announcement "a positive surprise."

Brown had for weeks been advocating for isolation centres in Brampton, which is home to a large number of essential workers in industrial settings and the highest proportion of multigenerational households anywhere in the country.

According to Statistics Canada's 2016 census, there were 24,140 multigenerational homes in the city, accounting for 14.4 per cent of all households. Multigenerational homes accounted for just 6.9 per cent of homes in Mississauga, and 3.7 per cent in Toronto. 

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown says the isolation centres will be helpful, but that the city needs additional supports, including paid sick days. (Angelina King/CBC)

"When you live with multiple generations or when you live in a crowded living condition, it can spread like wildfire," Brown said.

He said the lack of access to isolation centres has "absolutely" contributed to Brampton's stubbornly high case numbers and positivity rates.

Brampton has accounted for 61.6 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Peel Region, despite having a smaller population than Mississauga. 

Health care in Brampton 'grossly underfunded'

Longtime community health advocates say the delayed opening of the spaces is indicative of the chronic neglect towards Brampton's health-care services and the residents who rely on them.

"It's a systemic issue," said Gurpreet Malhotra, the CEO of Indus Community Services. "The area has been grossly underfunded for many, many years."

Malhotra said those long-standing issues have impeded the city's ability to quickly respond to the pandemic, though he also cast blame on the provincial government for failing to prepare when cases dipped during the summer.

"The state of readiness has been very poor. We have not been prepared properly for the second wave," he added.

Gurpreet Malhotra is the CEO of Indus Community Services, a non-profit that assists immigrants, including domestic violence victims. Malhotra worries his organization is nearing a 'breaking point' amid the high demand. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

A spokesperson for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark did not respond to a question about why Ontario did not fund isolation centres in Brampton until now.

"This new funding is being allocated based on needs and costs identified by the Ministry of Health and in consultation with local municipal service managers," said Rachel Widako in an email.

Will people use them?

While hundreds of new spaces will soon be available, there are questions about how many people will actually use the service.

Community health workers say that educating people about the isolation centres and persuading them to use them can be difficult.

Malhotra said the prospect of leaving one's household to isolate in a hotel room for up to two weeks can be a difficult proposition, especially for people who are relied upon for their income or to perform caretaking duties.

"Who goes to the isolation centre and who stays?" he said. "A lot of sorting out needs to occur, a lot of explaining ... needs to occur ahead of time."

The existing voluntary isolation centre in Mississauga has been used by 682 people since March 2020.

Toronto's isolation centre has housed 222 people since it opened in September.