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Region to start naming workplaces with significant outbreaks

Facing a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Region of Waterloo is set to begin releasing the names of businesses and workplaces with notable ongoing outbreaks.

The new policy was announced Wednesday, setting a fairly high threshold: either 15 or more cases with at least 15 per cent positivity amongst staff and patrons, and at least 20 people in the workplace or 50 or more cases in addition to sustained transmission in the workplace or facility. Information won’t be released if there are significant privacy concerns.

“Outbreaks are a reflection of what we see in the community. As cases increase, we also expect to see increases in the number of workplace outbreaks,” said Dr. Ryan Van Meer, the region’s associate medical officer of health, said in announcing the change.

“Public Health works closely with workplaces and the Ministry of Labour to ensure appropriate infection prevention and control practices are in place. We are implementing this update to our workplace outbreak reporting to keep Waterloo Region informed of significant, active workplace or facility outbreaks.”

This new addition to pandemic statistics will be released weekly. Currently, there are 16 active outbreaks in the region. Throughout the crisis, the largest source of outbreaks in Waterloo Region have been in long-term care and retirement homes, which represent 35 per cent of the total. Other locations include workplaces at 31.3 per cent, schools as 10.7 per cent, hospitals at 6.1 per cent, licensed child care facilities at 4.3 per cent, independent living at 1.6 per cent and universities at 1.1 per cent.

The decision follows numerous occasions where Public Health has opposed the release of names. In the past,  Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region’s medical officer of health, has defended that position, citing privacy concerns and the potential harm to identifiable locations and people.

Circumstances like the arrival of a third wave may have prompted the change of heart, with Wang having previously indicated information might be released if warranted. She pointed to locations such as restaurants where the virus could be spread not only between employees but to patrons as well.

Workplaces that let down their guard when it comes to following public health guidelines can be more prone to outbreaks among employees, even if steps are taken to protect customers, she said.

“Public health precautions however are not always consistently applied in employee-only areas. Common areas where we’ve identified increased risk include workers carpooling together, workers coming to work while symptomatic – in some cases, despite screening measures in the workplace. And not maintaining physical distancing in employee-only areas, such as in lunchrooms, break rooms and meeting rooms.”

A workplace blitz carried out by public health officials last month found a 55 per cent compliance rate among businesses in the region. 

The region has a webpage providing additional information around COVID-19 and safety measures. It includes workplace guidance based on the type of business to continue working with best practices.

“Our guide for workplaces helps employers determine who is a close (high risk) contact that needs to self-isolate and get tested,” Van Meer told the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, adding there are other ‘upstream’ public health measures workplaces can use to prevent high-risk contact. These include physical distancing, PPE, preventing close contact during lunches and breaks, as well as environmental cleaning and disinfection.

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