Surging COVID-19 case numbers are prompting a workplace built to handle the world’s most infectious diseases to adopt remote-work plans.
Staff at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory who are able to work from home have been asked to do so beginning Monday.
The shift to remote work comes in the face of widespread community transmission and skyrocketing cases as Canada battles the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lab has two sites in Winnipeg, including the only facility in Canada operating as a Containment Level 4 lab, which works with deadly infectious diseases like Ebola.
A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada would not say if the move to remote work was due to COVID-19 cases hitting the facility or provide any figures on staff who have tested positive for the virus.
"On January 7, 2022, all staff at the NML were informed via an email message that the facility was making several changes due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in Canada," PHAC said in a written statement to the Free Press.
"To protect the essential workforce conducting critical on-site diagnostic and laboratory research, all personnel that can work remotely were asked to do so starting on Monday, January 10, and whenever possible for the next three weeks (when the guidance will be reviewed)."
The lab has provided "critical scientific leadership" in Canada’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, including data gathering, modeling and testing support, as well as more than 100 research studies into the virus and its effects, according to PHAC’s website.
PHAC said managers have also been asked to "review their program’s resilience plan" with the aim of "reducing the number of close contacts in the facility."
All staff must wear fitted masks or respirators when not eating or drinking — even when distanced from others, the agency said.
Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc., said seeing a Level 4 lab — which would have strict safety measures in place at all times — shift to remote work where possible is a "critical reminder" of the Omicron variant’s severe transmissibility.
"The risk is in the community spread. You can have all kinds of protections at the workplace but for many, many people, it’s the community spread or the household spread where they’re impacted," Carr told the Free Press Sunday.
"For me, (this tells us) there’s a reaction (from PHAC) to our obvious ongoing knowledge of the tenacity of this virus, the speed, and how easy it is to spread to others."
Manitoba reported 3,265 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, Jan. 7, bringing the total number of confirmed infections during a 10-day period to 17,260. Public health officials have said that is a significant undercount due to insufficient laboratory testing capacity.
During the holiday season, from Christmas to New Year’s Day, more than 915 healthcare workers tested positive for the virus.
Widespread community transmission of the Omicron variant has left the public sector battling a significant staffing pinch, resulting in worker shortages among the Winnipeg Police Service, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and Winnipeg Transit.
WPS Chief Danny Smyth declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 so he could redeploy officers to general patrol duty. At the time, 170 WPS staffers were absent due to COVID-19 related leave, including 90 off sick with the virus.
Carr said PHAC’s shift to remote work for laboratory staff could be an attempt by public health to "lead the way" on a policy that should be widespread among workforces at this stage in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right now, anyone who can be working from home, should be, Carr said.
"We need to keep our employees as healthy as possible and at home. With this variant, so many people who are testing positive are experiencing mild illness, so they can still work. But they can’t return to the workplace," Carr said.
"The best thing to do would be to have people already set up and have them continue to work from home as we get through this wave… And this is our only Level 4 lab and we need to do everything we can to keep these essential and very specific services operating."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.