Bring COVID-19 vaccines to essential businesses, owner says after outbreak

An essential worker at a company manufacturing construction trailers is seen in this photograph.

The owner of a Scarborough business recovering after a serious COVID-19 outbreak says it’s time that Ontario join other provinces in vaccinating essential workers at risk during an outbreak — and some emergency room doctors agree with him.

Al Abdelmalek says he was able to get some workers vaccinated only because they were older, and had to hope that other measures like sanitization and isolation would protect his remaining employees.

“We had people here who tested negative. They were scared. Having to have the vaccine for those people will make sure the negative people won’t get COVID and pass it on to other family members and schools — that’s not what we need. We need everybody safe,” Abdelmalek told CTV News Toronto.

Abdelmalek saw firsthand the policy of the Ontario government, which in Phase 1 of its distribution has been to vaccinate primarily based on age.

Changing that policy would allow doctors flexibility to target hot spots regardless of the age of the employee, said emergency room doctor Lisa Salamon-Switzman.

She said patients are showing up at emergency rooms younger and sicker, and many of them got sick at work, she said.

“We need to focus on the people who are acquiring COVID and spreading it. We need to pivot from what we’re doing and direct vaccines to essential workers regardless of their age,” Dr. Salamon-Switzman said.

The outbreak at Abdelmalek’s business, which manufactures construction trailers, started with just one case in March, and then ballooned to 21 cases before finally ebbing days ago.

Adbelmalek increased cleaning, kept ventilation high through open doors in the work floor, and encouraged sick people to stay home. The essential workers could not do their jobs at home, and so while they were at home work simply stopped, he said.

“There was nobody. That hurt our sales a lot. Our sales went down, finished, to almost nothing,” he said.

It took about four weeks before he could start work again. When CTV News Toronto visited on Monday, cars were again parked in the company’s parking lot.

If he had to do it again, he would have locked his company down sooner, Adbelmalek said.

“Definitely I would tell everybody, take a week off, a couple weeks off, go for it,” he said.

Over in B.C., at two outbreaks at a Costco in suburban Vancouver and a Langley glass shop in March, local health authorities sent mobile vaccine teams to vaccinate the employees pre-emptively.

“It’s because they are more vulnerable and are more vulnerable because of circumstances in the workplace,” B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said at the time.

Ontario is still in Phase 1 of its vaccine distribution, which means decisions about who vaccinate are based on age. This is primarily to prevent infection among those most likely to die of the disease if they catch it.

In some vaccine clinics in high-transmission zones, that age has dropped to as low as 50, but local health officials do not have the ability to target vaccines to younger people they feel are more at risk because the virus and its variants are spreading in those locations.

The Brampton Board of Trade is pitching a pilot project where businesses with essential workers are offering to set up vaccination clinics in their locations.

“We have a fire happening in Peel Region and we’re encouraging the government to provide us vaccines to put that fire out,” said Todd Letts, the Board of Trade’s CEO.

Programs like that could make a difference, said Dr. Salamon-Switzman.

“I do believe if we could focus our vaccination efforts on people the we know are acquiring COVID at work and bringing it to their homes we would be in a much better place and the province needs to switch their gears and direct us to bring vaccines to these locations,” she said.

The Ontario government said in a statement that essential workers will be targeted in Phase 2 of the province’s vaccine distribution in June.

"Ontario's vaccine distribution plan is focused on vaccinating populations based on age and risk. This approach is designed to save lives, protect those at risk of serious illness and to stop the virus from spreading,” the statement said.