In May, 25 employees at the Maple Lodge Farms poultry processing plant in Brampton acquired COVID-19, resulting in one death and high-profile public awareness.
Over the past few days, much duller news has emerged of an even larger outbreak in Peel Region in which 61 employees at a Mississauga company acquired COVID-19.
The name and location – and all other details – of the company at the center of the outbreak remain a closely guarded secret.
“I think we owe the public full transparency,” said Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, where the majority of the 61 cases are located. “I’m struggling with the explanation that we should have different thresholds on what we disclose.”
The two cases in the same region indicate growing confusion as to when and how major COVID outbreaks are reported and where public health officials strike a balance between the public’s right to know and the right to know. protection of the privacy of companies and employees.
“I disagree with public health on the level of disclosure,” Brown said.
Peel’s acting medical officer of health, Dr Monica Hau, told The Star Sunday that disclosure policies at Peel have evolved since the Maple Lodge affair.
“(The Maple Lodge Farms outbreak) was in the early days of the pandemic,” she said. “I think we learned early on that there was a lot of attention back then and now we prefer to try and focus on working with employers to focus on finding contracts.”
Provincial workplace outbreak guidelines do not include any public notification requirements unless there is a risk to the public. And there is no specific threshold of active cases in a workplace that would trigger a public announcement if health officials believe they are in control of the outbreak, she said.
In recent months, the Star has revealed workplace outbreaks that have never been publicly reported by health officials, including a case last month of an outbreak involving 184 workers at a Toronto bakery. .
During this time, the public has been repeatedly briefed on epidemics in long-term care homes and hospitals, sparking heated debate followed by heightened public vigilance and a government response, including a tighter oversight and investment in safety equipment.
Hau confirmed to The Star that the company at the center of Peel’s latest outbreak is a manufacturing facility in Mississauga that is currently closed. She would not provide any further details.
“We are cautious about the identification of workplaces in the event that this could lead to the identification of positive cases and invade their privacy.”
For example, if the name of the company where the outbreak occurred is made public, the identity of infected employees could potentially be revealed, she said.
“If there are known places and people know other people who work there and understand that they have been away from work for a few weeks … it may be easier for them to determine if they were a positive case, ”Hau said. “These people with COVID are already going through a difficult time. Therefore, inadvertently providing information in a public forum that could identify them would be a violation of privacy law. “
Withholding business identity has another benefit for public health investigators, she said.
“We will get more cooperation if employers don’t also treat the public’s attention at the same time. We focus and focus on getting information about their employees… and helping them improve infection control practices. “
Public health officials are now monitoring the 61 infected employees and their families, including regular phone contact and contact tracing, she said.
Brown said keeping the identity of the trade secret can have the effect of widening the net of public suspicion and anxiety that involves far more companies than necessary.
“The public can understand that there can be outbreaks in businesses. There will be no damage to reputation. There is no damage to reputation unless there is secrecy. “
Michael Palleschi, a Brampton councilor whose riding includes Maple Lodge Farms, said he was “disappointed” by the drastically different level of public disclosure adopted by Peel Public Health for this much more serious outbreak.
“I do not agree. I think it should be made public and let the public decide. “
Karen Ras, a councilor from Mississauga, said the public has a right to be informed of a major outbreak like this.
“The lines are blurry (around public disclosure) and we need clarity,” she said. “I would be wrong in favor of greater transparency and greater openness to the public. These people go home to families who go to the community.
As it is, companies may choose to voluntarily report a major outbreak in their workplace. Maple Lodge Farms and its union, for example, have approached the outbreak publicly with expressions of “deep sadness” and details of the steps being taken to address it.
This kind of transparency should be mandatory, Ras said.
“Grocery stores, for example, are open and transparent about an outbreak in their stores,” Ras said. “There is a level of public confidence in this. The public will come back. I don’t think other companies should be any different. They should be required to do so.