IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is our personal experience at Sanagan’s and my re-telling of some of the advice we received and decisions we made. It does not constitute advice. Toronto businesses should directly contact Toronto Public Health to obtain advice pertinent to their particular businesses and circumstances.
Toronto Public Health's Covid-19 Hotline: 416-338-7600
March 23, 2021
My experiences over the last couple of weeks have allowed me greater access to Toronto Public Health than before, and I want to share what I’ve learned, in the hopes that there is greater understanding of how Covid-19 can be contained within the business community. As Toronto opens up, I feel like all businesses and customers can gain something from our experiences at Sanagan’s Meat Locker, and I firmly believe that the more knowledgeable we all are about this pandemic, the better equipped we are to combat it. Additionally, I believe that transparency and knowledge can help reduce anxiety at stressful times. The better we are prepared, emotionally and physically, the better we will deal with the virus in a workplace.
First, I want to state that this information is current as of today, March 23rd, in Toronto, and is reflective of my understanding of the information I was provided. Additionally, different regions, towns, and countries may have different tactics to fight Covid, as the levels of contamination and social behaviour are different from place to place. That is very important to understand, as well as the fact that this information is only up to date as of the date this was written. Things change, the scientists learn more, and there are variants of concern that we have to be ready for. Additionally, as more people get vaccinated, the situation will undoubtably change. Keep that in mind if you’re reading this in September 2021…
I want to clarify some things for everyone, as there has been conflicting or outdated information, and I want you all to understand the information Toronto Public Health conveyed to Sanagan’s in regards to Covid-19 transmission in the workplace. The advice we received is based on the scientific understanding of the Covid-19 virus and how it behaves.
1) Toronto Public Health's Role
The number one thing everyone should all know is that Toronto Public Health is the authority for all public advice related to Covid-19 in Toronto. You may have read articles from other regions, or heard something on the news, or even had been given information by an employee of a local hospital, that may conflict with what we're doing at the business level. There is no greater authority on the specific nature of what's happening in Toronto, and more importantly in a Toronto business, than the Toronto Public Health team that works directly with organizations. There is always an investigation into these matters, and any decisions are made based on the science and particular circumstances in the workplace. If you ever have any questions or concerns about Covid-19 in general, or how we (or any businesses) operate, I implore you to contact Toronto Public Health's Covid-19 Hotline at 416-338-7600.
2) Closing a Business due to Covid-19
As a business, I feel like we did the right thing last week by closing to examine what our next steps should be. However, Toronto Public Health does not currently recommend that businesses close if there is a positive Covid-19 case. As far as I understand, at no point does Toronto Public Health recommend that a business, or any organization, close due to a single case of Covid-19 or even if an outbreak has been declared. The most important piece for Toronto Public Health is containment of the virus. They contain the virus by determining who may have been exposed based on the level of risk during contact with a positive case. An organization is not required to close and test all employees. So, while I think we did the right thing for us at the time, it wasn't necessary in the eyes of science and Toronto Public Health.
3) Exposure Levels
There is a difference between "high-risk" and "low risk" exposures (or contact levels). A high-risk exposure is defined as being within 6 feet (or 2 meters) of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 for a cumulative time of 15 minutes over a day. Cumulative is important, as you don't want to assume that you can be close to someone for five-ten minutes, walk away for a half hour, then do it again a few more times. That could still be considered high-risk. Note that I say "considered". It can be extremely confusing and stressful to try to figure out if you have been a high-risk exposure to a contagious person. You may think "what if I talk to someone for a minute fifteen times a day", or "what if I pass someone in a hallway 100 times a day?" "How do you estimate the cumulative time you've spent with one person, when I work with up to 20 people per day?" These are all legitimate questions, and Toronto Public Health is the key investigator in determining who is at high-risk. They talk to the infected person, they talk to management, and they will talk to you if they think you are at risk. From my understanding, you are not considered high-risk if you walk by someone a bunch of times in a decently ventilated environment. You are considered high-risk if you have multiple 5–10-minute conversations with a contagious person within 6 feet (2 meters) a few times in an 8-10 hour shift. So, the lesson is: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. Move around and talk to someone from afar. Don’t eat lunch with someone without physically distancing yourself. And remember, at the end of the day, it will be Toronto Public Health who determines who is a high-risk contact and who isn’t. They know the questions to ask to get the answers they need to determine this, which leaves a lot of the guesswork out of your hands.
4) Contagious Time
The current advice is, after more than a year of learning about Covid-19, scientists now understand that a person is considered to be contagious up to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms. That is, if you feel a tickle in your throat on a Monday afternoon that turns out to be a symptom of Covid-19, Toronto Public Health considers you to have been contagious starting from the Saturday two days prior. Even if you had a close contact with another person on the Friday, that isn't actually considered high-risk for contracting Covid-19. That close contact will likely be eliminated from Toronto Public Health's investigation.
5) Isolation Time
A person who has tested positive for Covid-19 must isolate for 10 days from receiving the positive results. A person who is considered to have had high-risk exposure must isolate for 14 days from the last contact. Why the difference? If you have tested positive for Covid-19, science tells us that you will most likely only be contagious for a maximum of 10 days after getting results. If you were exposed to Covid-19, the virus can incubate and not express itself symptomatically for up to 14 days. Someone who tests positive for Covid-19, should not be contagious after ten days of learning of their result. Someone who may be incubating the virus, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, could be contagious for up to 14 days. I use the word should when talking about a person with Covid-19, because it is still determined by Toronto Public Health if you can stop isolating. Again, it takes the guesswork out of the picture.
6) Getting Tested
Currently, Toronto Public Health recommends the earliest you should get a test is FIVE days after exposure. On top of that, they don't recommend you get a test unless you are considered a high-risk exposure case. By all means, you can get a test for your piece of mind, but the most important thing for any low-risk contact to do is to monitor symptoms, constantly wash your hands, and physically distance from each other.
7) Declaring an Outbreak in an Organization
If two or more cases of Covid-19 occur at an organization, and they can be epidemiologically connected to each other, Toronto Public Health will determine an outbreak has occurred, and post the business name and number of cases on their website. Before declaring an outbreak, they have to eliminate all other possibilities of why two or more people have contracted Covid-19. As we all know, this virus is rampantly spread throughout the community, and Toronto Public Health does not automatically assume that one case led to another. Rather, they will follow up with the positive cases, investigate thoroughly, and determine how else it could have been contracted. As discussed, Toronto Public Health will investigate who is positive, and who may be considered high-risk, and direct individuals to isolate based on the findings of that investigation. Although there are exceptions, we have been advised that Toronto Public Health generally would not recommend that a business should close. If we were to find ourselves in a situation where there are quite a few employees isolating, we would make decisions based on who is available and safe to work, and what Toronto Public Health recommends we do at that time. Remember, Toronto Public Health is the authority, and I am happy to take direction and guidance from them. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT I WOULDN'T CLOSE THE SHOP IF I FELT IT WAS AN UNSAFE PLACE TO OPERATE. I want to be clear with everyone on this, and I should hope that last week's decision shows you that I'm not afraid to make those hard decisions. Businesses should make decisions based on the scientific knowledge and guidance from Public Health.
8) Public Messaging
Currently, there is no requirement by Toronto Public Health for a business to message the public about Covid-19 cases in their workplaces. As mentioned, if there are two or more linked cases at a single workplace, Toronto Public Health will post this information on its website.
9) Remember to Breathe and Relax
This is extremely hard to do and extremely important to do. We may experience outbreaks, and we will handle them well, just like we've handled so many other hurdles over the years. I for one need to remember this, as I process stress and pressure with varying degrees of discomfort. To be honest I haven't slept much this last week. I've been emotional and have had to put on a good face. But that's ok, because I believe that we will get through this. It sounds corny, but it's true. This virus is terrible and is wreaking havoc across the planet, but the vast majority of us will remember it as "those terrible years". If we keep our sights on that, we can get through this. I could bore you with terrible events that happened in the business's lifetime that, while at the time felt immeasurably difficult to overcome, are now just memories.
Focus on good science and a positive future. These thoughts will help you get through the hard times.