Farmers, workers and health officials are struggling to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario’s agricultural region amid mass confusion over isolation protocols after one farm was effectively shut down despite a new provincial guideline designed to prevent such work stoppages.
The June 24 guidance from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, allows some asymptomatic workers who test positive to continue doing their jobs, so long as they are kept separate from those who test negative. The guidance applies to other sectors, but it was crafted specifically to encourage agri-food employers to co-operate with mass testing without fear of losing their work force to self-isolation.
More than 750 health-care professionals signed a letter sent Thursday to Dr. Williams, imploring him to abandon the guidance.
In Windsor-Essex County, medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed issued an order Wednesday requiring that all employees at Nature Fresh Farms stop working and isolate. The Leamington vegetable greenhouse has at least 191 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the overwhelming majority of them migrant workers. That order prompted confusion among employers about what an outbreak would mean for their staff.
Dr. Ahmed’s counterpart in the hard-hit district of Haldimand-Norfolk, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, has also expressed concerns with protocols for migrant workers, telling a June 30 board of health meeting that “we can’t have a separate management plan for people that live on farms or live in congregate settings than for anybody else – it’s just not consistent with our culture.”
Even Dr. Williams on Thursday appeared to walk back the guidance, at least partly, saying it may not be appropriate for greenhouses.
At his daily briefing Thursday, Premier Doug Ford said his government is working “around the clock” to contain the outbreaks. Asked about Dr. Ahmed’s stop-work order, Mr. Ford said, “Do you think that encourages other farmers to co-operate, when all of a sudden one of their friends gets their farm shut down like that?” He implored workers to get tested, saying some have run away and hid from public-health officials visiting the farm to swab them.
“My emphasis to the workers is nothing’s going to happen – Ontario’s here to help you, make sure you get better, make sure you get healthy, that’s what we want,” Mr. Ford said, assuring workers that if they can’t work because of COVID-19, they won’t be deported and they will be paid. “We’re Canada. We aren’t some third-world nation that you have to run from the authorities.”
More than 950 migrant farm workers in Ontario have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units. Health officials have stressed that the workers, for the most part, arrived in Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. In an investigation published last month, The Globe detailed the unsafe living and working conditions that contributed to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus on some Ontario farms. Roughly 10 per cent of all workers in the Southwestern Ontario area who have been tested for the virus have had positive results. Three men from Mexico have died.
Although provincial officials, including Mr. Ford, have so far refused to name Nature Fresh as the site of the latest major outbreak, two sources confirmed the location to The Globe. The sources, who have direct knowledge of the situation, are not being identified because they were not authorized to publicly name the employer. Dr. Ahmed’s order prohibits employees from working until further notice and requires that the owner ensure that the workers isolate.
“It is imperative that we stop the transmission of COVID-19 in this farm and our agricultural sector,” Dr. Ahmed said in a statement. All of the cases at Nature Fresh were discovered through a targeted asymptomatic testing campaign, in which mobile assessment units travel to farms to reach as many workers as possible.
A Nature Fresh worker, who does not live on the farm, told The Globe that the employer generally treats workers well and that he has had access to personal protective equipment. The man, who is not being identified because of concerns about future employment, believes he contracted the virus through shared transport among workers employed at multiple farms. He said he lost a month’s wages to self-isolation because he found it too difficult to apply for government assistance.
Nature Fresh did not respond to requests seeking comment.
In a news conference Thursday, Dr. Williams said he understands why Dr. Ahmed chose not to adhere to the guidance, saying the protocol is actually more intended for outdoor jobs, not greenhouse work (the guidance refers to both outdoor environments and work done indoors with minimal physical interaction with others). He also said the workers at the greenhouse in question did not fit the definition of asymptomatic, as some showed signs of illness.
Dr. Williams responded to concerns raised by 769 doctors, researchers, professors and epidemiologists, whose letter said the protocol poses a specific risk to migrant farm workers and their communities. He said the guidance is intended for open acreage and would not apply to indoor industrial agriculture settings.
Claudia den Boer, who is part of the province’s team overseeing the pandemic response, said her understanding is that by the end of this week, roughly 3,000 of the 8,000 migrant farm workers in the Windsor-Essex region will have been tested. “That leaves another 5,000, and there’s more coming this month,” she said. “It’s highly frustrating. We were starting to see some good uptake [with testing] … Now, our fear is that there may be a reluctance,” because of the confusion around protocols.
Haldimand-Norfolk officials said at this week’s board of health meeting that there are myriad challenges with trying to contain outbreaks among the migrant farm worker community, including employees’ hesitation to disclose symptoms. Health officials cited other hurdles, such as staff working at multiple farms and employees working during the initial 14-day quarantine period, which is against the rules.
The district is recovering from an outbreak that hit almost all of the 216 migrant farm workers at Scotlynn Group’s vegetable farm in Vittoria, Ont. The board heard that the outbreak has cost the health unit roughly $250,000. This does not include expenses incurred by other authorities, such as the hospitals that have treated workers ill enough to require intensive care (one man remains in the ICU).
Brett Schuyler, of Simcoe’s Schuyler Farms, said the health of his employees comes first but he is worried about what an outbreak at his family’s apple and cherry farm would mean for his crop. “If you know the rules, it’s easier to play,” he said. “We’re terrified. It’s a lot of hope and prayer right now.”
With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto
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