Workplace infections feeding higher COVID-19 rates in Manitoba ethnic communities, doctor says

The province must rethink its vaccine rollout and its definition of an essential worker in order to address the widening gap in COVID-19 infection rates between communities of colour and white people, says a Manitoba intensive care unit physician.

“Our distinct impression is that there are substantial workplace clusters that aren’t being documented or reported by public health,” Dr. Anand Kumar said.

Around 75 per cent of the people Kumar is seeing in ICUs are members of minority groups, and most of them are front-line workers who can’t work from home, he said.

Data released by the provincial government last week showed that newcomer communities, particularly southeast Asian, African, South Asian and Filipino communities, have higher per capita infection rates than any other groups.

Many members of these communities work in front-line jobs such as food services, retail and health care, which means they don’t have the option of working from home, said Kris Ontong, vice-president of the Philippine Heritage Council of Manitoba.

“So the nature of their occupations puts them at a closer proximity to the coronavirus, instead of people who are working [in] offices who can have the option to just work from home and be a lot safer,” he said.

Many people in these communities also live in multi-generational households. Essential workers bring the virus home and the virus spreads to other family members, especially now that more contagious variants of concern have taken hold in Manitoba.

“We’re seeing a lot of family clusters, basically, including multiple members of the same family hospitalized or in the ICU, or both,” Kumar said.

Widening gap

In May, about 39 per cent of infected people were white, while Black, Indigenous and people of colour combined had 61 per cent of infections, but only 37 per cent of Manitoba’s population.

This is in contrast to the second wave of the pandemic, when white and BIPOC communities shared very similar infection rates.

The latest data also suggests a greater proportion of white Manitobans are getting vaccinated, although data on race and ethnicity was not collected on vaccination consent forms until May 10.

A number of factors could explain this, including that Manitoba’s vaccination campaign shifted to focus on speed, prioritizing supersites, which may not be the most accessible sites for some communities, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead for the First Nations pandemic response co-ordination team, during a technical briefing last Wednesday.

Anderson also said negative past experiences with the health-care system and mistrust could make some people hesitant to get the vaccine.

Risk of stigma

Ontong questions whether the province should have released the data on infection rates among different racial and ethnic groups, fearing it could lead to further stigmatization.

“People might think that, OK, this particular community has a lot of cases, so maybe we should avoid them, or maybe they’re the ones who are carrying the virus, which is totally not true,” he said.

Messaging should focus on engaging people and addressing their concerns, rather than blaming them for their circumstances, said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s vaccine task force, last Wednesday.

Although everyone 12 and over is now eligible for a vaccine, vaccine supplies remain limited.

Kumar said the province should consider prioritizing people working in front-line jobs.

“If you’re a 21-year-old and you have to work in a grocery store, or in food processing, or you’re a 30-year-old woman working in a factory that processes meats, for example, then you should have priority over somebody the same age who doesn’t have to do that kind of work, who can potentially work from home,” he said.

He also wants the province to rethink whom it considers an essential worker.

“Is it essential that we have indoor construction ongoing? Is it essential that manufacturing for items that aren’t related to this crisis, is that really essential?”

Ontong urges everyone to do their homework and weigh the pros and cons of getting vaccinated.

“So far, this is the only thing that we have against COVID-19,” he said.

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