As Ontario rides Wave 7 of the pandemic, the province's chief medical officer is already warning the public that "We may ask Ontarians to wear masks as we go indoors into the fall, and we may mandate it if our health system has too many people getting admitted."1
Unlike our first two pandemic summers, when outdoor living helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19, weekly caseloads have steadily increased since June. The number of cases is projected to fall in August but surge again in the fall as summer vacations end, schools reopen, and people spend more time indoors. These factors are expected to contribute:
- the new Omicron variants BA.5 and BA.4 variants, now dominant in Ontario, are believed to be the most transmissible variant so far, 2 leading to high levels of community transmission.3
- immunity from previous infections and vaccinations diminishes with time, leaving previously protected people vulnerable to infection and re-infection.
- vaccinations provide the best protection against severe outcomes, yet only 50% of Ontarians have received their third dose, let alone their fourth.4 As of July 14, all Ontarians aged 18 and older are eligible for a fourth dose, making continued immunization a public health priority.
What does this mean for workplaces? Omicron generally causes less severe illness than prior variants, but the higher transmission rate means more people may get sick. With labour shortages a top business concern, workplaces can't afford to ignore any threat to employee health and productivity.
"Anticipating and preparing now for a fall surge could have significant benefits for your employees, your customers and your business," says Wagish Yajaman, WSPS' Manager of Technical Services.
9 steps to take before the fall surge
- Check your local public health unit website and provincial sources regularly for COVID-19 updates. Keep senior management and supervisors informed.
- Review your COVID-19 hazard assessment. Given BA.5 and BA.4's higher risk of transmission in mind, are your existing controls sufficient? Could you implement new requirements?
- Establish metrics and thresholds that would trigger new COVID-19 measures. Among the possibilities: community transmission rates, wastewater surveillance results, hospital capacity, positivity rates, and vaccination rates.
- Prepare employees for the prospect of renewed precautions. Communicate your plans and explain why implementing more precautions may be necessary.
- Dispel any illusions among employees that COVID-19 is no longer a threat to them and their families. Use local public health data to keep employees up to date on infection rates, caseloads, and fatalities.
- Anticipate resistance. We're all feeling COVID fatigue. What can you put in place to help employees overcome fatigue and buy into any new requirements?
- Promote vaccinations and booster shots. Vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
- Encourage employees to take precautions when away from work, such as choosing outside activities over inside, wearing a mask in indoor public settings, maintaining physical distance from people outside their household, ensuring good ventilation at home, and practising proper hand hygiene.
- Advise any employees feeling unwell to stay home and get tested. If feasible, supply employees with rapid antigen test kits.
How WSPS can help
- COVID-19 Workplace Risk Assessment and Safety Plan (20-minute eCourse)
- Return to Work During COVID-19 (30-minute eCourse)
- Return to Work During COVID-19: Preparing Workers (30-minute eCourse)
- Pandemic Planning: Reopening for Business (30-minute eCourse)
Product and service resources
- Ventilation Checklist (COVID-19) (Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers)
- 10 ways to reduce COVID-19 exposure with better ventilation (article)
- Conducting a COVID-19 risk assessment before bringing employees back (article)
- A new approach to hazard controls at work (article)
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.
1. "COVID-19 in Ontario: Focus on July 3, 2022 to July 9, 2022 (Week 27)," Public Health Ontario Weekly Epidemiological Survey; www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/ncov/epi/covid-19-weekly-epi-summary-report.pdf?sc_lang=en.
2. "Omicron and BA.5: A Guide to What We Know," Yale Medicine; www.yalemedicine.org/news/5-things-to-know-omicron.
3. "Evidence Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant Sub-Lineages BA.4 and BA.5: Evidence and Risk Assessment," July 8, 2022, Public Health Ontario; www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/Documents/nCoV/voc/2022/07/evidence-brief-ba4-ba5-risk-assessment-jul-8.pdf.
4. "Ontario Vaccination Data," COVID-19 Tracker Canada; covid19tracker.ca/provincevac.html.