As countries around the world continue to work tirelessly to contain the spread of COVID-19, health officials have already warned that a second wave of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease could be imminent.
Last week, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told Canadians the virus could last several months and warned of a potential second wave.
“We will need to be prepared for another wave, potentially,” she said.
Could Canada see a second wave of this novel coronavirus? Would it be worse?
Here’s what experts say:
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Dr. Suzanne Sicchia, an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said a second wave occurs when new cases emerge after a “sustained period of time with no or very few infections.”
In an email to Global News, Sicchia said that when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, a subsequent wave is possible.
“Past pandemics of infectious disease are characterized by waves that span months,” she wrote. “For instance, we saw this with the 1918 influenza pandemic, which had three waves.”
However, Sicchia noted that this novel coronavirus is “a unique virus with unique characteristics — it is not the same as SARS, MERS or influenza.”
She said watching what happens in China and South Korea will yield “important insights” into what could happen with this outbreak.
When could the second wave happen?
Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto, said there are a number of factors that will determine if or when Canada sees a second wave.
He said that if this virus behaves like the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, things might calm down over the summer, and a second wave could come around fall or winter.
“They’re going to call that the second wave,” he said. “But we have no idea what’s actually going to happen.“
He said if Canada is going to see a second wave, it will likely happen once the social-distancing measures currently in place are relaxed.
Kwong warned, though, that “unless we are able to get it under control,” Canada could see a continuation of the virus through the summer months.
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Would a second wave be worse?
When it comes to the severity of the second wave, Kwong said it depends on how well Canadians abide by the measures in place and if the country is able to flatten the curve.
Kwong said that with H1N1, countries that experienced a large first wave typically saw a smaller second one.
Conversely, countries that had smaller first waves “generally” experienced larger second waves, he explained.
“I think that may be the pattern we see depending on what happens here,” he said. “It’s kind of like you have a choice: either you have pain now or you like your pain later.
“You’re going to have pain, it’s just a question of when you get your pain.”
But, Kwong said, Canada is “nowhere close” to the peak of the virus because “not a lot of people have been infected.”
“I would say that we haven’t seen anything yet here,” he said. “I think this theoretical second wave, or whenever we relax these restrictions, it’s going to dwarf what we’re seeing now.”
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Physical distancing ‘the most effective strategy’
Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, said that right now, physical distancing is the “most effective strategy” Canada has for limiting the spread of the virus.
“The physical distancing is really the key thing. It’s collective action that needs to be done, which can be done. Everybody needs to buy into it,” he said. “That’s the best we have.”
Janes said the more we can flatten the curve, the better Canada’s health system will be able to respond to those infected with the virus now and anyone who becomes sick later.
“This is probably one of the most important things that we’re going to be asked to do in our lifetimes,” he said. “We really need to do this carefully, and if we can do it well, I think we’ll be in a much better position to get back to normal life.“
Kwong said that what we might see in Canada is a gradual relaxation of restrictions, so if people continue to become ill, it doesn’t happen all at once.
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On Wednesday, China began lifting the last of the stringent measures that confined tens of millions of people to their homes for approximately two months.
Kwong said it will be interesting to see what happens with the virus once the controls have been lifted.
“I think that’ll be a good indicator of what will happen here when we relax our social-distancing measures,” he said.
Janes said Canada should also continue to do whatever possible to produce additional medical supplies.
Over the last few weeks, companies across the country have retooled in order to help manufacture protective masks, ventilators and sanitation products desperately needed by health-care professionals.
“In addition to social distancing, this will put us in a much better position,” Janes said. “If we flatten this curve and get it under control, to some extent, we’ll buy some time so that we can make sure that our health system is equipped.”
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Coronavirus: Are call centre employees from Canada’s banks allowed to work from home? – Global News
Only one of Canada’s six big banks says it is developing plans to allow some customer services employees to work from home instead of in crowded call centres — the type of enclosed spaces with over 50 people that public health officials have urged Canadians to avoid in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Global News reached out to the six major Canadian banks — TD, the Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank of Canada — to find out what they were doing to protect the health of thousands of call centre employees who are responding to inquiries from their customers.
All six said they have been providing essential services and dealing with high call volumes ever since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered tens of thousands of layoffs and a shutdown of multiple businesses and offices across the country.
The crisis has also prompted a flood of transactions as well as requests for emergency loans and other financial advice, the banks told Global News.
But none of the six big banks provided detailed explanations why their call centre employees — who don’t need to meet with clients face to face — are being asked to work from offices with dozens of colleagues at a time when the federal, provincial and territorial governments are asking Canadians to avoid gathering in crowds that could speed up the spread of COVID-19.
While many other businesses have scrambled to provide employees with tools needed to work from home, the banks are not facing any mandatory rules to protect employees, other than to ensure they are kept physically distanced.
Instead, federal public health officials have promoted voluntary guidelines for businesses, including banks, to follow in call centres and other workplaces.
RBC was the only other bank that said it was starting to allow some customer service employees to work remotely and that it was “working diligently to securely enable even more call centre staff to work from home.” RBC didn’t provide details about where and how that would be done.
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Toronto-Dominion Bank said it would be allowing all staff at a Halifax call centre for TD Insurance to work from home after staff were informed on March 27 that one of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.
TD told the Halifax employees in an internal email, sent on March 30 and obtained by Global News, that it hopes to have all TD Insurance employees at that call centre working from home “over the next few weeks.”
The message was prompted by the news that one employee had tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a deep clean of the third floor of the call centre where that employee worked and forcing 15 close contacts to self-isolate.
An employee who Global News agreed not to name in order to protect their job said roughly 100 people were still working at the call centre as of April 1, and had not been following the proper health guidelines.
“We often see the people, even supervisors, are not respecting the social distancing in the office,” the employee said.
The internal email said 182 employees of that Halifax call centre were already working from home. A TD spokesperson told Global News that common areas at the facility were closed and the remaining staff were split between four floors to “enhance physical distancing.”
But TD did not indicate any similar plans would be underway for any of its bank call centre employees.
A COVID-19 case was also identified at a CIBC call centre in Halifax in late March. A CIBC spokesperson said it had conducted a deep clean of the premises, where an employee told Global News over 100 people worked on each floor before physical distancing measures were put into place.
Measures in place
Public health officials across Canada have said that Canadians must aggressively practice physical distancing and remain at home as much as possible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it from overwhelming hospitals.
The CEOs of the six banks and several smaller financial institutions have publicly agreed they have a role to play, and have urged other businesses to follow suit.
The banks all told Global News they are taking measures to protect call centre workers. These include reconfiguring workspaces within their call centres to keep staff apart, in line with health officials’ guidelines to stay at least two metres away from each other.
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But one labour expert was skeptical about whether the measures go far enough to protect the employees in the workplace or on their commute, for those taking public transit.
“To make a flat declaration that you’re essential and therefore you’ll arrange things and we’ll have to be confident that those arrangements will be safe — I mean, let’s hope they’re right, but it’s kind of a big leap,” said Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
TD, Scotiabank and National Bank said they have split up teams between different floors, or different locations altogether, to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
None of the banks beyond RBC and TD indicated working from home was even an option for these workers.
BMO said it needed to maintain some onsite staff “to support critical operations.” Scotiabank also called its call centres “critical.” Neither bank provided detailed explanations of those critical operations, or why they couldn’t be performed from home.
A spokesperson for RBC said a “number of considerations” are factored into allowing an employee to work from home, “including employee health and well-being, technology and business continuity, along with the need to respond to our clients.”
When pressed by Global News, National Bank and CIBC declined to explain why its call centre employees needed to do their jobs in the office.
The six banks said in addition to physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning guidelines have also been introduced at all call centres for staff to follow.
The banks offered varying details about steps they were taking to clean and disinfect their call centres.
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BMO said all call centre facilities, personal spaces and common areas are cleaned multiple times per day. CIBC said workstations are now cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, while cleaners are also present during the day.
TD said the cleaning and sanitizing of all premises have been increased, and are stocking spaces with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
National Bank would only say they were promoting “basic hygiene measures” like hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Scotiabank said they have increased sanitization and deep cleaning measures at all locations. RBC also said they have “enhanced sanitization.”
The banks are also increasing their perks for call centre staff. BMO, RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC have introduced a $50 daily stipend for each of those staff members for every day they work onsite.
CIBC has thrown in free parking. Scotiabank is stationing nurses at all call centres “to provide in-person wellbeing support for mental and physical health concerns.”
TD and CIBC are offering up to 10 paid days for anyone impacted by the pandemic, including those who are unable to secure childcare. TD is also providing free counselling.
National Bank did not say if it was offering similar incentives to its employees.
Only National Bank and TD would share where their call centres are located and how many people work in them. National said it has “five main teams working in different sites” across the greater Montreal area, for a total of 1,000 employees. The spokesperson would not confirm exactly how many sites were being operated, or how many employees were working in each site.
TD said they have call centres in Moncton, N.B., Montreal, London, Ont., Ottawa and Markham, Ont., though did not share how many employees work in each, or if more than one site was operated in a single city.
The other banks did not share where their call centres are located, or even if they’re located in Canada.
In 2013, CBC reported RBC was replacing some of its Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers from India, leading to a public apology from the bank. RBC eventually walked back the plan, committing to only hiring foreign workers if Canadians aren’t available to fill that job.
Can government step in?
Along with health care, transportation, government centres and media, banks and other financial institutions have been declared essential services by the federal and provincial governments, and should therefore continue to operate.
The federal finance department referred questions about remote work for call centres to Health Canada, who in turn forwarded the query to Employment and Social Development.
In a statement, a department spokesperson said employers have been told to create or update existing hazard prevention programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of any changes to those plans.
“We recognize that many employers who are able to continue their operations during the COVID-19 crisis are going above and beyond standard health and safety measures, and are doing everything possible to accommodate reasonable requests from employees,” the statement read.
“We all have a role to play to help flatten the curve.”
Thompson, the UBC business professor, says no matter how many precautions employers may take, they’re still “taking a chance” and posing a risk to both employees and the public at large by keeping workplaces open.
He admits that banks could be worried about security breaches in not moving call centres to home, as they deal with sensitive information to confirm callers’ identities.
But he says he’s still “surprised” that a solution hasn’t been found amid months of warnings and weeks of efforts to ramp up social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.
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“We’re still waiting to see if these efforts work, but we should be doing as much as we can,” he said. “[The banks] are obligated to provide a safe workplace.
“If just one person contracts this disease … I guess we’ll find out then what steps they’ll take.”
Employment Canada said requirements for businesses to have all employees work from home is a provincial matter. So far, no province has made such an order, although Alberta has now made it mandatory for businesses to practice physical distancing, threatening fines for those who disobey.
All of the provinces and territories have placed restrictions on gatherings that have led to the closure of businesses and public spaces closures, with exceptions for businesses and organizations that offer essential services.
Many provincial governments who responded to Global News said as long as workplaces, including bank call centres, can maintain physical distancing, they can continue to stay open and operate.
“If social distance can’t be maintained, the business must limit the number of customers or clients on its premises to no more than five people at a time,” a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 response said in an email, citing that province’s social distancing guidelines.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said banks are considered an “allowable business service” in the province, along with health care, law enforcement, transportation and the media.
“We cannot speak directly to the relationship between banks and their call centre employees,” a spokesperson said.
A statement attributed to New Brunswick Labour Minister Leigh Watson said any employee concerned that their employer is violating the Employment Standards Act by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can file a complaint with the province, or through WorkSafe.
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Yet British Columbia’s COVID-19 Joint Information Centre said all employers “should support their employees to work from home whenever it is possible,” and “ensure there are no more than 50 people working in the same confined space.”
“Employers have a responsibility and an obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their workers,” a spokesperson said.
In March, the CEOs of all six banks signed an open letter, published in the National Post, along with roughly 100 other Canadians business leaders who urged employers to “immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus.”
“Enable your employees to practice social distancing. Facilitate work-from-home for all non-critical business functions,” the leaders stressed.
“Understand that your employees are looking to you for leadership and trusted information in turbulent times.”
— With files from Global’s Alexa MacLean and Graeme Benjamin
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Government documents reveal a slow start to Canada's COVID-19 response – CBC.ca
Briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats for federal ministers show just how quickly the COVID-19 situation evolved in Canada — with public health officials stating the risk of transmission in Canada was low right up until early March, only to recommend an ordered shutdown of economic life in this country some two weeks later.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Thursday that it could be as long as a year before normal life returns in Canada — a dramatic change in messaging, considering how Public Health Agency of Canada officials were advising policymakers less than two months ago that COVID-19 risks were low in this country, and that mandatory quarantines for returning travellers would be too difficult to enforce.
A March 10 department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period said that, with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point, “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.” The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”
A month later, Canada has more than 21,000 cases.
As the documents show, as early as Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as “very high” in China and “high at the global level.”
The tranche of documents, prepared by various government departments and tabled with the Commons Health committee late Wednesday, include many of the early planning memos that informed the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in January and February.
They show that while the government was seized with repatriating Canadians from China’s Hubei province and various cruise ships during that time, there was little talk of a possible pandemic.
Public health officials questioned the accuracy of media reports out of the city of Wuhan, in Hubei, suggesting that the virus was spreading through person-to-person contact.
“Based on the latest information that we have, there is no clear evidence that the virus is easily transmitted between people,” a Jan. 19 briefing note prepared for Hajdu said.
The documents also reveal that the government was reluctant to strictly police travellers arriving from Hubei, the region of China where the novel coronavirus is thought to have originated.
‘Next to impossible’ to stop COVID-19: minister
According to talking points prepared for a Jan. 30 call with her provincial and territorial counterparts, Hajdu said preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “next to impossible” because of the nature of global travel.
“What really counts is limiting its impact and controlling its spread once it gets here,” the talking point reads.
Three days later, the U.S. barred all non-citizens coming from China from entering the country.
While there were information booths at major Canadian airports starting on January 21, the decision to collect personal contact information from inbound Hubei travellers was only made on Feb. 19 — information that could then be used by public health officials to follow up with people if an outbreak emerged.
The government relied on individuals to self-report to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms, long after temperature monitoring measures were commonplace at airports in Asia.
Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 18, 58,000 travellers arrived in Canada from China — 2,030 of them were coming from Hubei province.
Only 68 were pulled aside for further assessment by a quarantine officer and only three passengers were actually flagged for a medical exam — the other 65 passengers were sent away with a pamphlet.
It’s impossible to know how many pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic passengers were released into the general Canadian population.
Bureaucrats warn against mandatory quarantines
On Feb. 7, the government started recommending that inbound Hubei passengers start to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days to prevent transmission.
In an undated memo to Hajdu sent in mid-February, department officials warned that Canadians may question the effectiveness of “voluntary” self-isolation measures for these travellers.
But the memo says “there is no ability to enforce or ensure compliance” with a mandatory isolation order without the use of the Quarantine Act — a measure the government would end up enacting weeks later.
The memo said it was best to leave all self-isolation measures as voluntary to ensure there is “less pressure on public health resources.”
The memo said public health officials didn’t have the capacity required to quarantine passengers from China; 20,000 such travellers were arriving in Canada each week at the time.
The Public Health Agency scrubbed any references to China in pamphlets disseminated to returning travelers starting on Feb. 24, after it was clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in countries like Iran and Italy.
I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic.– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Calls between Hajdu and her provincial and territorial counterparts later in February focused on quarantine facilities for returning Hubei and cruise ship travellers in Trenton and Belleville, but said little about how the various jurisdictions would respond if COVID-19 escalated.
According to briefing notes for a Feb. 10 call, Hajdu said that while the country was in a “containment phase, we cannot ignore what comes next.”
The note states that the Public Health Agency of Canada was “doing advanced thinking and scenario analysis, including a pandemic scenario,” but it’s not clear if those scenarios were actually discussed with provinces and territories on that call.
Health Canada expected Hajdu would be pressed by the provinces about the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the call. The department told her then there were ongoing “attempts” to secure devices like N95 and surgical masks for the national stockpile but “deliveries were staggered by industry due to mounting market pressures.”
It said it had procured only a “modest” amount of the masks — items that would be badly needed a month later.
By Feb. 26, when there were 78,000 COVID-19 cases in mainland China, public health officials continued to counsel Hajdu that “the public health risk within Canada remains low.” A month later, there would be 1,000 cases in Ontario alone.
Even after the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in Canada started to rise by mid-February, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg did very few tests, with most of them reserved for travellers from China. It is now understood there was widespread transmission of the disease in Europe and in some U.S. hotspots like New York by this time.
By Feb. 17, the national lab had run only 461 tests — a marginal increase from the 367 tests run the week before.
By Feb. 25, Ontario and B.C. had provincial labs ready to test but the other provinces were still relying on sending samples to Winnipeg — a cumbersome process that made it difficult to identify and isolate cases in the other provinces early on.
Countries ‘caught off guard’: Trudeau
When asked Thursday what went wrong in the government’s COVID-19 planning, Trudeau said there will be time for reflection at a later date. He said he was confident the government made the “best decisions” with “the information we have.”
“I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic,” he said. “The challenges we faced in terms of getting Canadians protected are echoed in challenges faced around the world.
Watch: Trudeau warns Canadians need to remain vigilant
“I think Canada has done a good job of keeping on a path that is going to minimize as much as possible the reality we’re in right now. As we look back at the end of this, I’m sure people will say, ‘You could have done this a few days before.'”
Canadians would not have backed strict pandemic measures in mid-January, says official – CBC.ca
Closing the border and telling the public to self-isolate at home in the early days of Canada’s COVID-19 outbreak would have done more harm than good, according to a national public health organization.
Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), told a virtual committee of MPs today that while critics have said the federal government should have acted sooner, there would have been “very little” public support for strict measures in the middle of January, which could have undermined health officials’ efforts when the situation became more dire.
“Low public support would have led to low-level adherence and a diminished support for any future interventions,” he said. “Slowly, you have to change people’s thinking … that takes time. It takes evidence. You have to prove to people that it’s serious.”
The House of Commons health committee is studying Canada’s response to the COVID-19 virus to ensure the federal government learns lessons that can be applied to the next pandemic. The Liberal government has faced criticism for waiting until the eve of Ontario’s March break to tell people not to travel. The Conservatives have accused the Trudeau government of failing to restrict public gatherings soon enough and waiting too long to impose tougher measures at the border.
After critics accused it of lax screening at airports for returning travellers, Quebec Premier François Legault sent his own public health officials and police to airports to warn travellers to self-isolate for two weeks. This week, B.C. Premier John Horgan took it a step further and imposed a new legal requirement forcing travellers to present formal self-isolation plans to authorities at airports and border crossings.
Culbert said while public health officials’ incremental approach has been attacked, he believes it was backed up by evidence.
Culbert said it’s hard to change human behaviour — especially in Canada’s case, given that the pandemic started halfway around the world in China. Canadians felt a sense of “insulation,” he said. That attitude carried on even when Canada reported its first cases in British Columbia and Ontario, he added.
“There’s a sense of them and us,” he said. “Slowly, you have to change people’s thinking. There’s no them and us. It’s a ‘we’ situation.”
He turned to an example from the 20th century: when Canadians with tuberculosis were forced to leave their families and isolate in sanatoriums, he said, many avoided public health authorities as a result, which spread the disease further.
“This shows coercive actions can only be used as a last resort,” he said.
Watch: ‘This will be the new normal until a vaccine is developed’: Trudeau
There’s been a “massive cultural change” over the last century in the public’s attitudes toward science and health authorities, Culbert added. But he pointed to the anti-vaccination movement as a current example that shows public health officials can’t just tell people what’s good for them and expect them to listen.
“Just telling people the right thing to do doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “We have to convince people. It takes time, unfortunately … but it’s actually what works.”
‘We’re just trying to strengthen the message’: Tam
Conservative MP Tamara Jansen questioned the government’s incremental approach to the restrictions.
Jansen said that in January, the Langley Chinese Cultural Arts Association cancelled a large event proactively before Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam banned large gatherings.
She also said that, early in the outbreak, members of the Chinese community in B.C.’s Lower Mainland were picking up people at the airport returning from China to ensure they didn’t take cabs. They were also buying them groceries so they didn’t go to the grocery store, she said.
“They were begging me to get the government to be more proactive,” said Jansen.
“This was all done on a completely voluntary basis. Is it possible it was a misjudgment of [the] willingness of Canadians to self-isolate that this didn’t go quicker?”
Watch: Tam and Freeland explain how closing the U.S. border helped fight COVID-19:
Culbert said this particular community likely felt directly affected because of their ties to the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.
“You’re talking about a highly sensitized community,” he said. “They had a direct connection [to] what was happening in China and were very much aware. Many Canadians were not that connected and [were] thinking of it as a problem on the other side of the country.”
Dr. Tam, meanwhile, was asked at a press conference today if she’s recommending the government enact even stricter measures.
Tam said she’s working with her provincial and territorial counterparts to monitor the trajectory of the pandemic and figure out how effective the current measures are. She said innovative studies are underway to track how well Canadians are following those measures, which could point to places where they can be bolstered.
Watch: Trudeau asked how should Canadians react to many more months of shutdowns:
“We’re just trying to strengthen the message to Canadians that really you should avoid all non-essential travel and stay at home as much as possible during this critical period,” she said.
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