Even before the new COVID-19 variants hit Ontario, health care worker infections were dangerously high, doubling in the last three months to over 16,000, the Ontario government’s own data shows. In 2020, for the first 10 months of the pandemic to October 23, 7,488 health care staff contracted COVID-19 at work. In the last 3 months ending January 22, 2021 the number has increased to 16,204.

CUPE warns that left unchecked, this rapid rise in health care worker infections – which includes two health staff deaths in the last two weeks alone signals calamity for Ontario’s understaffed health system.

“We are calling for decisive action by the province and a sharp adjustment in how we protect health care workers. Unless we do that, we will see another exponential jump in infections as the variants take hold,” says Candace Rennick, Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario.

Experts say the COVID-19 variants’ particle sizes are smaller. “This means that they can slip through surgical masks much more easily and because they are smaller and lighter, they also remain suspended in the air for longer periods of time in working environments. Higher health care worker infections are a huge concern because the workforce is already understaffed and because of the risk to the people that they care for with weakened immune systems,” says Rennick.

Although the federal government has acknowledged that COVID-19 is an airborne virus, the Ontario government has never accepted this form of transmission outside of aerosol generating procedures. How a virus is transmitted has implications for the protections that health care staff use to defend themselves against it, says Michael Hurley, President of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

He’s urging the province to take immediate steps to turn this situation around “including acknowledging that COVID-19 is airborne. Health care workers have been denied the personal protective equipment that they need to protect themselves against an airborne virus. This must change and explicit direction given to health care employers and to the enforcement arm of the Ministry of Labour. The practice of caring for long-term care residents with COVID-19 in the same facility as residents who do not have the disease must stop. To ignore the warning signs in this jump in health care worker infections is to accept calamity.”

During the pandemic, 20 health care workers have died in Ontario.