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Migrant farm workers line up outside the Nature Fresh Farm Recreation Centre in Leamington, Ont., to get tested for COVID-19, on June 11, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Mayors and public-health officials in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to manage the initial COVID-19 quarantine period for incoming migrant farm workers, instead of leaving it up to employers to arrange isolation accommodations.

The agriculture sector has accounted for hundreds of new infections in Ontario in recent weeks, holding back several municipalities from advancing to the next stage of reopening.

And with thousands more migrant farm workers still expected to arrive in the province before the end of the year, local officials say it is imperative that the Ford government step in and do more to ensure that the initial quarantine is effective. Oversight, they said, has been haphazard and needs to be centralized.

“The current approach has been horrible,” Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said. “It has led us to be where we are right now. There are so many silos and so many shared responsibilities.”

Ms. MacDonald is among the local leaders who want Ontario to adopt an approach similar to British Columbia, where the provincial government assumed responsibility of the 14-day isolation period for temporary foreign workers. This includes transport from the airport, hotel accommodations and food.

In Ontario alone, more than 1,150 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units. Three men from Mexico have died. A Globe investigation into the outbreaks exposed myriad factors that made the workers vulnerable to the virus.

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From the moment they landed in Ontario, workers were at risk of falling through the cracks of a system rife with jurisdictional complexities. Some employees described being transported from the airport in packed buses and vans, with people who had arrived on different flights. Several said they were quarantined in crowded farm bunkhouses and weren’t provided with adequate food or sanitation products.

Ottawa, which is ultimately in charge of the temporary foreign worker program, rolled out rules in April related to accommodations for migrant workers during the mandatory quarantine. For example, employer-provided housing must ensure workers can maintain a distance of six feet. There is no federal prohibition on the use of bunkbeds, nor a cap on the number of workers that can isolate in a given dwelling or share a bathroom or kitchen during the quarantine.

Currently in Ontario, employers secure quarantine accommodations, which can involve group self-isolation in bunkhouses, trailers or sheds, or individual isolation in hotel rooms. While public-health units must approve the self-isolation plan to ensure compliance with quarantine requirements, housing inspections have been halted or conducted remotely during the pandemic.

Employers in the province are entrusted with screening workers for symptoms and reporting any suspected cases to public-health authorities.

In B.C., by contrast, the quarantine program is much more streamlined. As of April, all migrant workers entering the province must quarantine in government-managed hotels near the Vancouver airport. The province arranges safe transport to the hotel; when buses are used, workers wear masks and seating is spaced out to ensure physical distancing.

Each worker is assessed, in person, by a member of a health team within 24 hours of arrival and again prior to departing for the farm. The province also provides food and social supports.

The quarantine program has cost B.C. approximately $10-million so far, but it is estimated to have prevented more than two dozen potential outbreaks. A single outbreak can cost upward of $1-million in expenses and losses.

Ms. MacDonald said a single jurisdiction should be responsible for managing the initial quarantine period. “We can learn from B.C.,” she said. “It needs to be one decision-making entity.”

Ms. MacDonald said she intends to raise the issue with Premier Doug Ford when he visits Leamington on Thursday, and will also ask federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu to consider an expanded role for Ottawa.

Approximately 37,000 temporary foreign workers have so far arrived in Canada to work on farms. Employment and Social Development Canada estimates that an additional 14,000 migrant farm workers will come before the end of the year; roughly half are destined for Ontario. The federal department said in an e-mail that it is not currently considering assuming responsibility for the initial quarantine.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture did not directly respond to a question regarding whether the province has any plans to manage and oversee the initial isolation period. In an e-mailed statement, it noted that the current outbreaks on farms in the province are not linked with the initial quarantine period, but rather to transmission “after they have begun working, from employees coming onto the farm from the local community.”

Public-health officials underscore the importance of a strong initial quarantine program. Individual isolation, they say, provides the best chance at burning out the virus before workers move into congregate housing.

The acting medical officer of health for the Niagara region, Mustafa Hirji, described the B.C. approach as “good policy.” It has the advantage, he said, of “housing workers in hotels, which enables further physical distance between workers and reduces the risk of infection transmitting.”

Shanker Nesathurai, the medical officer of health for Haldimand-Norfolk, said individual isolation is best practice. “There’s no doctor who would say that group self-isolation is better than self-isolating alone,” Dr. Nesathurai said. He also said trained and impartial public-health officials – not employers – should be charged with monitoring symptoms during the quarantine.

Haldimand-Norfolk’s Agricultural Advisory Board, which is composed of industry stakeholders and advises municipal officials, recently provided a proposal to the health unit regarding worker accommodations. The board proposed that workers undertake the initial quarantine in bunkhouses with physical distancing of six feet, to a maximum of 70 per cent of the normal capacity. They proposed that a designated worker would co-ordinate wellness checks and report results to the employer.

In its response presented to Haldimand-Norfolk’s board of health last week, the public-health unit said the advisory group’s vision for the initial isolation would increase the risk to migrant workers. The unit maintains that while using hotels for the quarantine will bring added costs up front, it will dramatically decrease the likelihood of massive and expensive outbreaks that can shut down farms at a critical point in the season.

Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp said improving the effectiveness of the initial quarantine is very much a live issue, as workers continue to arrive from abroad. “It would be better for the province to manage this, like in B.C.,” she said.

She noted that while Norfolk has only 300 or so hotel rooms, it is just over an hour from Niagara Falls’s 16,000 hotel rooms. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said the hospitality industry is keen for business and would welcome a provincial quarantine program run out of hotels.

“We need a system in place where there’s one group that takes responsibility for monitoring the isolation, transporting the workers, getting the accommodations,” he said. “B.C. has shown us the way.”

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