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Workplace compensation claims reflect toll COVID-19 has taken on Canada's workers – CBC.ca

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Jeffrey Freedman is a COVID-19 “long-hauler” — one of many Canadians left with lingering health issues after getting sick from the virus. He says he now regrets going into work during the early days of the pandemic after falling ill in early April.

Freedman worked at a tile company supplying Toronto’s busy residential construction industry, which was deemed an essential service and remained open as other businesses were ordered to shut. He says he felt he had no choice but to report to work, despite risks of infection.

“I was in a bind. But because we needed the money and my feelings about my customers, I kept going and going and going and working my eight hours a day.”

CBC News reached out to provincial workers’ compensation boards across the country and found that more than 26,000 claims have been filed by people who contracted COVID-19 at work. Freedman is one of more than 20,000 people whose claims have been approved.

Thousands file claims across Canada

Statistics on workplace compensation claims are the first concrete indication of how many people are getting COVID-19 at work in Canada, but it’s an incomplete picture.

There is no standard accounting of how many people have fallen sick while at work due to a patchwork of provincial and federal tracking.

What’s more, the system does not capture COVID-19 cases among workers who are ineligible or simply don’t submit claims.

Freedman developed COVID-19 symptoms in April and went to the hospital, where he was told he was a presumptive case and had to go home and isolate. A few days later, he was struggling to breathe and was rushed to hospital by paramedics. He spent 44 days there, most of them on a ventilator as he fought off the infection.

“I have brain fog. I have permanent damage to my vocal cords from the ICU and tubing for 33 days. I have constant neck and bicep pains,” he said.

Freedman, now 65, said instead of enjoying his retirement and his dreams of travel, he’ll never be able to drive again and still struggles to get through each day.

“I have a major, major pressure wound on my butt from being in the ICU that is recovered to the point where I can at least sit, but I cannot sleep properly except more than 10 minutes at a time. And I’m very weak and tired, usually by 3 o’clock every day.”

Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) accepted Freedman’s claim and has since helped him and his wife, Lori, by replacing Freedman’s lost wages and helping to retrofit their bathroom to accommodate his injuries.

WATCH | What it’s like to be a COVID ‘long-hauler’:

Jeffrey Freedman got the coronavirus in March and still suffers from lingering health problems after being hospitalized for six weeks. 9:22

Claims by front-line workers rejected

In Ontario and British Columbia, the data shows that most claims have come from workers in health-care facilities and agriculture. However, a quarter of workers in Ontario are not covered at all by the workers’ compensation system, compared with B.C., where all workers have coverage.

Ontario workers not covered include a large number in such industries as privately run care homes, social assistance services and the tech and banking sectors.

Staff wear protective gear as they take orders at a restaurant in Montreal in July. There is no standard accounting in Canada of how many people have fallen sick from COVID-19 while at work due to a patchwork of provincial and federal tracking. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

“It really highlights the absurdity of having a compensation system that just cuts out whole swaths of industries and says you’re not entitled to coverage, and it’s very difficult to track those people down because when they go to the hospital, their claim doesn’t get billed through a WSIB number,” said David Newberry, a community legal worker at the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic in Toronto. 

About 1,425 claims have been disallowed in Ontario as of Nov. 13, including hundreds in front-line industries such as health care.

Newberry said the disallowed claims — along with the fact that the WSIB pays only 85 per cent of a worker’s full salary — don’t fit with declarations that these workers are “heroes” keeping the economy running during a pandemic.

“While companies are spending millions of dollars putting up billboards and bus ads thanking our front-line workers to be heroes — when people are actually getting sick within these workplaces, whether stocking our shelves or looking after our grandparents — what they’re getting is … a 15 per cent pay cut.”

Jennifer Collins worked as a nurse at Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont, the site of a major outbreak that killed 29 residents in the spring. She said she didn’t have adequate access to personal protective equipment and got sick with COVID-19 in March, leaving her with lingering health problems.

Collins was not hospitalized, and she said a lack of medical records chronicling her illness hurt her claim for workers’ compensation.

Security guards and a heath-care worker wait for patients at the COVID-19 testing centre at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto in June. About 1,425 workers’ compensation claims have been disallowed in Ontario as of Nov. 13, including hundreds in front-line industries such as health care. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“I got a phone call from [WSIB], and they said that they realized with COVID that it was a special case,” she said, “but because they didn’t have any medical data or documentation to back up what I was telling them that I wasn’t eligible.”

Collins said she still suffers from exhaustion and can only walk about two blocks before her hips act up. “Everyday I try to push myself more, but it is difficult, and it’s frustrating,” she said.

After being turned down, Collins instead applied for the Canada emergency response benefit and was approved.

Even with approval, fight isn’t always over

In Ontario, the WSIB has disallowed 302 claims from workers in nursing and residential care facilities.

Ultimately, many people getting sick at work are those who don’t have the option of working from home. Newberry, of the injured workers legal clinic, said these workers may not even know they can access workers’ compensation — in particular new Canadians who may not be familiar with the language or workplace laws.

David Newberry, a community legal worker at the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic in Toronto, says disallowed claims — along with the fact that the WSIB pays only 85 per cent of a worker’s full salary — don’t fit with declarations that these workers are ‘heroes’ keeping the economy running during a pandemic. (CBC)

“Those who are most vulnerable are the ones who are generally least likely to know that these things are available,” he said.

But even for those whose claims are approved, the fight isn’t always over.

Jeffrey Freedman received notice on Friday that his employer is appealing his workers’ compensation claim, insisting that it took all necessary precautions and there’s no proof he got COVID-19 at work.

As workers’ compensation claim costs rise, so too do the premiums that employers have to pay. Newberry said that the system gives employers an incentive to appeal approved claims.

“Workers’ compensation systems in Canada are set up in a model that is similar to private insurance,” he said.

“Even if … the injured worker is successful in proving their claim is valid, that process can take years, and it can be really stressful.”

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Pfizer will ship COVID-19 vaccine in fewer vials if Canada agrees to label change – CBC.ca

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Pfizer and BioNTech will cut back on how many vials of COVID-19 vaccine they send Canada this year if the federal health regulator agrees to change the vaccine label to say every vial contains six doses instead of five.

Medical professionals in the United States were first to discover in December that they could get six doses from each vial by using smaller syringes or special ones that trap less vaccine around the needle after an injection.

Initially heralded as a way to stretch the precious vaccine even further, the company stepped in to note its contracts are for doses, not vials: If a recipient can get six doses instead of five, then Pfizer and BioNTech can ship fewer vials and still fulfil their contractual obligation.

Pfizer pushed the U.S. and Europe to change the label information on the number doses per vial and both did in early January. On Friday, Pfizer asked Canada to follow suit, and Health Canada’s vaccine regulatory team is now considering the request.

“The final decision on the label update will reside with Health Canada,” said Pfizer Canada spokeswoman Christina Antoniou.

Special syringes needed

If Canada agrees to the change, Canada’s 40 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine will be shipped in about 6.7 million vials. Antoniou said if Canada does not, then the existing deliveries will continue based on five doses per vial, for a total of eight million vials.

“We will supply to Canada in line with our supply agreement and the label valid in the country,” she said.

Health Canada told medical professionals they could use sixth doses if they can get them from single vials, but advised against taking partial doses from multiple vials to make one dose due to the risk of cross-contamination.

WATCH | Ottawa offers assurances about COVID-19 vaccine supply:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to reassure Canadians about the COVID-19 vaccine supply after the European Union raised the possibility of imposing export controls on vaccines leaving the EU. Canada’s Pfizer-BioNTech shots are made in Belgium. 1:44

There has been some success at doing this. Saskatchewan reports receiving 22,425 doses of Pfizer’s and 10,300 doses of Moderna’s vaccine, for a total of 32,725. But it has injected 34,080 doses. The government attributed that to being able to get more doses out each vial than expected.

But European health officials have complained that a shortage of the special syringes needed is making it hard to get six doses out of each vial.

If Canada agrees to the change but can’t get the six doses out of every single vial, its goal to vaccinate 20 million people with Pfizer’s 40 million doses will be impossible to meet. 

Getting that extra dose requires the use of smaller syringes that allow less vaccine to go to waste with each injection. The best version is called a low-dead-volume syringe, which leaves less room for vaccine to get trapped in the needle and syringe after the plunger is pushed in all the way.

Those syringes are not as common as the three- and five-millilitre syringes mostly used in Canada’s vaccine campaign now, and the smaller ones have become the latest hot commodity of COVID-19.

Syringes on order

Public Services and Procurement Canada tendered contracts last year for 145 million syringes, 95 million of which are of the three- or five-millilitre variety.

There are 50 million one-millilitre syringes on order, including 37.5 million low-dead-volume versions.

The department wouldn’t say how many syringes of each type have arrived in Canada. A tender for one-millilitre syringes issued in October set a deadline for the first 15 million to be delivered at the end of this month and the rest by the end of March.

But whatever contract awarded has not been made public, including who the supplier is, how much it is worth, or when the supplies will be delivered.

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The latest news on COVID-19 developments in Canada for Wednesday, Jan. 27 – CityNews Toronto

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The latest news on COVID-19 developments in Canada (all times eastern):

10:45 a.m.

Ontario’s new daily case count of COVID-19 is the lowest it’s been in seven weeks.

The province is reporting 1,670 new cases of the virus today and 49 more deaths related to the disease.

Ontario’s daily case count hasn’t been this low since December 8.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says that 450 of those new cases are in Toronto, 342 are in Peel Region, and 171 are in York Region.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Canadian politicians struggle to come to grips with the global vaccine race – CBC.ca

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The global scramble to vaccinate the human race against COVID-19 is bigger than Canadian politics. But every Canadian politician no doubt understands the political and human importance of this country seeming to do well in this multinational competition. 

The result this week is anxiety and a rush to assign blame that has failed to produce easy answers to the central question of what, if anything, Canadian officials could be doing to procure more of what’s arguably the most precious commodity on Earth.

But this consternation among Canadian politicians might be obscuring a bigger question for the world: Is this really the best way to go about vaccinating 7.6 billion people against a common threat? 

The latest spasm of concern about Canada’s vaccine supply can be traced to a production facility in Puurs, Belgium, where Pfizer has been manufacturing one of the two approved vaccines for use in Canada. Pfizer has decided to retool that facility so that it can increase production. In the short-term, that means fewer doses will be available.

In response to Pfizer’s change of plans, Ontario Premier Doug Ford quickly declared that, if he were prime minister, he’d be on the phone to Pfizer’s top executive demanding the previously scheduled shipments. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” Ford said.

WATCH | Ontario premier says Trudeau’s ‘No. 1 job’ is to get vaccines:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to fight to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Canada and he suggests the alternative to the Belgian plant may be Pfizer’s Michigan facility. 0:55

It stands to reason that if getting a plentiful supply of the Pfizer vaccine was as easy as getting up Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s ying-yang with a firecracker, nearly every leader on the planet would be doing so. But Ford got a chance to test his theory — a day later he spoke with the president of Pfizer Canada. If a firecracker was lit during that conversation, it has so far failed to change Pfizer’s plans.

In Ottawa, the consternation has been only slightly less colourful, culminating in an “emergency debate” in the House of Commons on Tuesday. 

The Conservatives argue that an ill-fated partnership between the National Research Council and China’s CanSino Biologics distracted Justin Trudeau’s government from pursuing better options — but Public Services Minister Anita Anand told the Canadian Press in December that Canada was the fourth country in the world to sign a contract with Pfizer and the first to sign with Moderna, the other major supplier of an approved vaccine. 

The New Democrats argue that the federal government should have negotiated for the right to domestically produce the currently approved vaccines — but that presumably depends in large part on the willingness of companies like Moderna and Pfizer to do so. 

A real effort to ensure Canada had domestic capacity to produce a pandemic vaccine likely would have had to have been implemented years ago.

Little control over vaccine supply

Eventually, Tuesday night’s debate landed on questions of transparency. The government says it has a plan for vaccinating Canadians, but the opposition says that plan isn’t detailed enough.

The opposition insists the government should release the details of the contracts it has signed with manufacturers, but the government says those contracts are necessarily confidential. There are suggestions that Europe’s supply of the Pfizer vaccine might be smaller than the interruption to Canada’s supply, but it’s not clear why that might be the case.

The Liberals surely understand the gravity of the vaccine race, but they have never shown much interest in explaining themselves in detail. They insist that their agreements with seven potential manufacturers have put Canada in a decent position and that their medium-term and long-term targets for vaccinating Canadians over the course of this year will not be affected by the current shortfall.

WATCH | EU threatens to slow vaccine exports, increasing concerns about vaccine nationalism:

The European Union is threatening to slow exports of the Pfizer vaccine after Astra-Zeneca announced a delay in production. With vaccines in short supply, global health leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of vaccine nationalism. 2:00

But Pfizer’s decision to retool the plant in Puurs underlines how little control the Liberal government can claim to have over the situation and how little sympathy they’ll receive if things don’t work out the way they said they would.

It was just over a month ago that the federal government was able to answer a previous panic with earlier-than-expected approvals and shipments of the new vaccine. If the Liberals were only too happy to bask in that good news, this interruption feels like the universe’s way of telling them to not get cocky.

Canada vs. other countries

In the meantime, even the definition of success will be up for debate.

On Monday, for instance, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus complained that Canada was not doing as well as the Seychelles, which had delivered at least a first dose to 20.22 per cent of its population through January 25. By comparison, Canada’s rate of vaccination was 2.23 per cent.

But the tiny island nation has a population of 98,000 people (roughly the equivalent of Red Deer, Alta). In absolute terms, the number of people who had received a dose in the Seychelles was 19,889. Canada, meanwhile, had administered doses to 839,949 people.

WATCH | Ottawa offers assurances about COVID-19 vaccine supply:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to reassure Canadians about the COVID-19 vaccine supply after the European Union raised the possibility of imposing export controls on vaccines leaving the EU. Canada’s Pfizer-BioNTech shots are made in Belgium. 1:44

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland countered that Canada was ahead of Germany, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. But three of those countries — Japan, Australia and New Zealand — haven’t yet begun their vaccination programs. And in two of those countries — Australia and New Zealand — COVID-19 is almost non-existent. 

‘This is pure nonsense’

During the emergency debate on Tuesday night, the NDP’s Don Davies said Canada ranked 16th per capita in doses administered. He meant it as a complaint. But it could just as easily be framed as a compliment — if Canada ends up being the 16th fastest country to vaccinate its population, it will have finished ahead of 174 other countries. Among the 32 OECD countries who have begun vaccinations, Canada ranks 12th in doses administered per capita.

A few countries — the United States, United Kingdom and Israel — seem to be benefiting from their own unique circumstances. The U.S. and U.K., for instance, have access to domestic production of the available vaccines.

In every other country, there might be some version of the Canadian debate playing out; Trudeau said last week that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had commiserated about the similar criticism that they were each facing. 

WATCH | COVID’s one year anniversary in Canada:

One year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19, are we really all in it together? A PSW speaks about the reality of working the front lines in long-term care homes, and an artist questions life after CERB. PLUS, why first-world countries like Canada are being accused of hoarding vaccines. 45:36

But all of this might underline the questions of whether an every-country-for-itself scramble to acquire vaccines from a limited number of private manufacturers is the sensible way to go about vaccinating the human race.

“‘Could Canada have done more?’ The problem for me is that this is not the right question. What we’ve been seeing, for me, is a bit of a catastrophe,” said Marc-Andre Gagnon, a political science professor at Carleton University who focuses on pharmaceutical policy.

“You end up with a handful of companies that are developing their own vaccines, each by themselves, working in silos. So then you have a product with a patent, so monopoly rights on the product. And then you end up with this vaccine nationalism of all countries basically doing a free market negotiation in terms of who can jump the queue in order to get faster access to the vaccines. In terms of priorities of global public health, this is pure nonsense.”

A better approach, Gagnon suggests, would have focused on collaboration, data sharing and making use of all available manufacturing capacity around the world. 

Pfizer’s new deal with Sanofi, a rival producer, might at least be a step in that direction. But any serious rethinking of global vaccination policy might have to wait for the next pandemic.

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