'Inundated' with workplace COVID outbreaks, city seeks beefed-up enforcement powers

COVID-19 infections are increasing "exponentially" in the city, said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches, and workplaces are playing an increasingly significant role in its spread.

Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health.

The Ottawa Board of Health is urging the province to beef up the powers of enforcement officers to enter, inspect and shut down businesses that aren’t complying with COVID safety rules.

The motion, passed at Monday evening’s board meeting, also pleads with the province to “urgently” review the types of workplaces that can have staff on site, limiting them only to those that provide groceries, medications and products that are essential for health and safety or medically necessary care.

COVID-19 infections are increasing “exponentially” in the city, said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches, and workplaces are playing an increasingly significant role in its spread.

“Our team is now being inundated from workplaces where more than two people have tested positive,” Etches said. “We’re also seeing outbreaks in offices where people could have potentially worked from home.

“Employees who can work from home, must work from home.”

Inspectors have visited more than 80 businesses across a variety of sectors and found half of them in violation, either by improperly screening people for COVID-19 or not following public health measures.

“Some businesses have received repeated infractions and they’re making entry difficult for enforcement officers to verify compliance with provincial and local requirements,” she said.

The lengthy meeting included more than two hours of public presentations, many from child-care workers and early childhood educators who pleaded to be eligible for the vaccines, and from advocates for frontline workers such as grocery clerks and for disadvantaged and racialized communities that are most at risk.

Donna Mortimer, vice-president of CUPE Local 2204, which represents unionized child-care workers in eastern Ontario, said her members are burning out and suffering mental-health issues.

“They’ve worked through the brunt of the pandemic while waiting for the vaccine,” Mortimer said. “By not prioritizing child-care workers, the Ottawa government is refusing to acknowledge the worth of a sector that they have deemed essential.”

Ottawa Public Health has now administered just shy of 278,000 vaccination doses. Still, 60 per cent of people aged 60 and older and 75 per cent of people in their 50s have yet to get a shot.

That’s significant because more than 80 per cent of hospital and intensive care admissions are people older than 50, Etches said. Even more startling, people over 60 are 230 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than someone under 40. For people in their 50s, the death rate is 40 times that of people under 40.

“COVID is finding older adults,” Etches said.

All OPH vaccination appointments are booked until April 30 and vaccine still remains in short supply. The city had been expecting 120,000 doses to be delivered between April 20 and May 11, said Anthony Di Monte, the city’s general manager of emergency and protective services, but has now been told it will only get 95,000.

The city is continuing to target “hot spots” communities and has been doing so since before the province adopted the same strategy, he said.

Ottawa Public Health reported 203 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and no new deaths. The city’s seven-day daily average of cases is 288.

Monday also marked the first day of Ottawa police checkpoints at the city’s five bridges with Gatineau, part of the provincial emergency order to restrict interprovincial travel. Commuters were waiting an hour to cross at some times of the day, while on the Quebec side, traffic on Highway 50 was backed up for several kilometres.

Ottawa police were not turning people around or ticketing on Monday, with stops initially aimed at “informing and sensitizing” people about the new restrictions. Police were also stationed at the Quyon and the Bourbonnais ferries.

— With files from Bruce Deachman

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