Doctor urges more vaccines for Brampton to quell sky-high COVID-19 cases
Test positivity hit 22.4 per cent this week, compared to less than eight per cent for Ontario overall
Update: Peel Public Health announced on Saturday that it has partially closed two Amazon fulfilment centres to control COVID-19 outbreaks. A portion of this show was recorded across the street from one of the sites.
In hard-hit Brampton, Ont., where COVID cases are among the highest in the country, there are too few vaccines and too many barriers to getting an appointment, say community health experts who live and work in the area.
The community in Peel Region, west of Toronto, has a high concentration of essential workers who are not able to physically distance at work.
"Amazon and other large businesses have been continuing to operate throughout all of the pandemic, and this has put a huge amount of pressure on vulnerable communities where they are being the essential worker but are not given any of the essential supports, for example, access to vaccination," said Gurpreet Malhotra, CEO of local non-profit Indus Community Services, which has been sending community health ambassadors door-to-door to provide vaccine information and support with booking appointments.
"And not having paid sick time means that someone who is a little bit sick, or even able to somehow mask their illness, [is] then compelled to go to work."
Hospitals in Peel are among those across the province struggling to find intensive care unit staff and resources. As a result, some patients who are critically ill with COVID-19 are being transferred from one end of Ontario to another as part of efforts to stretch capacity.
An Amazon facility in Brampton, which has around 5,000 employees, has been linked to more than 600 cases of COVID-19, and was briefly shut down by Peel Public Health in March.
Earlier that month, the bus route leading to the facility was suspended out of concern that cases at Amazon were responsible for spread among the route's drivers.
A Peel Public Health investigation was not able to establish a clear link, but Malhotra said the closure created "a situation where people were paying $15 a trip to get into a car with a stranger going the same direction."
"They're so desperate for the funds and the resources to live day-to-day on the one hand, but on the other hand, [they're] now all crammed into a small car together twice a day to go to a workplace that itself might have issues on transmission."
CBC Radio asked Amazon Canada to comment on the outbreaks at its Brampton facility, but did not hear back before deadline.
Too few vaccines and too many barriers
However, Peel Region said Thursday that Amazon would be one of three local employers, along with Maple Lodge Farms and Maple Leaf Foods, to offer on-site vaccination clinics for its employees in the coming weeks.
Malhotra told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman Brampton desperately needs more vaccines and better ways of delivering them.
"We need more. We need more pop-ups. We need more mobile supports in addition to more throughput [at] our larger standalone vaccination sites," he said.
Ontario expanded eligibility for the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, allowing residents age 40 and older to get immunized at pharmacies. But that's little help in lower-income areas like Brampton and Toronto's northwest, where there are proportionately fewer pharmacies to begin with and even fewer greenlit as vaccine sites.
CBC Radio counted 61 pharmacy vaccine sites listed on the provincial government portal, for Brampton's population of 593,638, as of the 2016 census, compared to Kingston's 35 pharmacy vaccine sites for a 2016 census population of 117,600.
A CBC investigation found that 64 per cent of the pharmacies in Kingston had been established as vaccine sites, despite not being considered a hotspot. The region's public health unit said its test positivity rate was 0.85 per cent as of Friday.
Parmeshwer Dhillon, one of the community health ambassadors working with Indus, has seen the consequences first hand while going door-to-door to offer support. "I found out that six, seven houses in a row, they have a whole family affected with the COVID," he told Goldman and producer Jeff Goodes on a visit to Brampton this week.
Dr. Shruthi Gowda, a family physician at an urgent-care clinic just a short drive from the Amazon warehouse, has been working hard throughout the pandemic to keep the clinic's regular family practice patients and its many drop-in patients healthy.
That's around 4,000 patients for her and one other physician after a third doctor left the clinic last month, said Gowda.
She told Goldman she hasn't taken a work day off since the pandemic began.
While some of her patients are lucky enough to have jobs they can do from home, the clinic's location means many of them are "front-line workers who have to drive trucks, ride the bus, or go to work in the warehouse and factories."
Gowda, who has been practising medicine for 20 years, 10 of them in Canada, played a key role in a polio vaccine campaign in her home country of India before moving here.
She said she'd like to see Ontario's vaccine effort target hard-hit areas and examine accessibility. "Do they have their own car? How do they get to this vaccination site?"
Workplace hotspot clinics to begin
As for controlling workplace spread, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region's medical officer of health, issued a Section 22 order Tuesday that forces any business to close for 10 days if they've had five or more linked COVID-19 cases over the previous two weeks.
But Todd Letts, CEO of the Brampton Board of Trade, said that approach may be unnecessarily punitive on employers and staff.
Instead, he'd like to see more collaboration between businesses and the health region, and vaccine prioritization of hot-zone employees who haven't yet qualified based on age.
The board of trade has been working with six local employers to propose a pilot program for hosting on-site vaccination clinics. Two of those, Maple Lodge Farms and Maple Leaf Foods, have received the green light to proceed, along with Amazon Canada, which had its own parallel negotiation underway, said Letts.
WATCH | Toronto, Peel to shutdown workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks
For these workplace hotspot clinics, the employers will get the vaccine from the Peel Region, but fund the administration of the shots themselves.
The companies will each also sponsor "an equally sized local community clinic held at a community centre, place of worship or other community hub," he said. The Maple Lodge Farms clinic will be the first to start next week.
Sofina Foods, Coca-Cola Canada Bottling Ltd., Kuehne+ Nagel and Armacell Canada are also part of the proposed pilot program and Letts said he hopes they will also go ahead soon.
"We hope the lessons learned with these three will spark more greenlights for other manufacturers that can meet those standards."
Given Brampton's population density and the number of people living in crowded conditions, Gowda said she's hopeful more plans will be put in place to help those most vulnerable.
"We have to allocate the resources accordingly, have to ramp up fast so that we do not stay a hotspot forever."
Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Jeff Goodes, Amina Zafar and Rachel Sanders.