Environment and Climate Change Canada has closed its weather forecasting centre in downtown Montreal for at least two weeks due to an outbreak of COVID-19.
The office, in Place Bonaventure, includes the Quebec Storm Prediction Centre and the Canadian Meteorological Aviation Centre, which produce weather, marine and aviation forecasts.
On Wednesday, staff were informed in an internal email, obtained by CBC News, that there are five confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two suspected cases.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the management team took the decision to extend contingency operations for at least 2 weeks to allow all staff to self-isolate for 14 days,” said Russell White, the director general of prediction services for the Meteorological Service of Canada, in that email.
With the office closed, forecast centres elsewhere in Canada will be producing Quebec forecasts in the interim.
Outbreak began May 12
Based on the timeline laid out in the all-staff email, the first case of COVID-19 at the Montreal office was confirmed on May 12.
Staff who worked with the infected employee were notified, and the office was cleaned.
Another case was confirmed May 15 and a third over the weekend.
According to the email, a total of 40 staff were notified when that third case was confirmed. They were asked to self-isolate, contact public health and monitor their symptoms.
By Sunday evening, the number of suspected or confirmed cases had risen to five.
“In one case, no direct contact with previous confirmed cases could be made, which could be a sign of transfer through other pathways,” said White in his email to staff.
In a follow-up email that was also shared with CBC, staff were asked to share the results of their COVID tests with their manager as soon as they get them and keep in touch about any symptoms they have while isolating.
White said in his email an investigation will be done into the workplace procedures at Place Bonaventure, which will be shared with other offices across Canada to monitor the “effectiveness” of their own procedures.
A spokesperson for Environment Canada, Gabrielle Lamontagne, told CBC in an email that in the early days of the pandemic, employees who could work remotely did. At the offices, physical distancing was improved by relocating work stations, and the operations area was restricted to operational staff only.
Lamontagne said the office was cleaned twice a day, and work teams were organized to minimize the number of colleagues each employee came in contact with.
On-duty teams were also assigned to separate kitchen and washroom facilities.
Lamontagne confirmed the office was temporarily closed and cleaned after the first COVID case was detected, also confirming that staff who worked with that person were contacted and advised to self-isolate.
“Additional computer workstations were set up in a training room to allow for further separation of the teams,” said Lamontagne.
More could have been done: employee
An Environment Canada employee, who has requested anonymity, said he doesn’t understand why that last measure wasn’t taken at the start of the pandemic.
I am shocked and disappointed,” he said. “The Place Bonaventure workspace is well set up to spread staff across several board rooms and a training room, to allow staff to be physically distant.”
The employee said as many as 70 people are affected by the closure. He said the backup plans shouldn’t result in too much of a change in day-to-day forecasts, because much of the work is computer-generated.
However, there could be a problem if there is an extreme weather event, he said.
“The Toronto staff do not have a nuanced understanding of the local weather effects in the various regions of Quebec,” he said. “They don’t have the in-depth knowledge of the Lower North Shore or the Gaspesie or the far North. It’s stressful for them to write all these forecasts for places that they have limited knowledge of.”
The employee said a prolonged closure like this one is rare. He is concerned about staff fatigue due to the extra workload.
A call to the Quebec regional office of PIPSC, the union that represents the meteorologists, was not returned.
The exact date of the forecast centre’s reopening has not yet been set.