Windsor health unit asks for help as more farm workers contract COVID-19
COVID-19 cases on local farms have complicated Windsor-Essex's transition to the second stage of reopening
TORONTO — Public health officials in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex region are asking for additional resources to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks on farms after more than 180 workers in the sector tested positive over the weekend.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the region’s medical officer of health, said the spike in new cases follows increased testing of farm workers.
“It was expected that the testing initiative will identify positive cases among the farm workers, but we are clearly seeing the numbers going up in that sector,” Ahmed said June 29. “Almost all of the workers at the time of testing reported no symptoms.”
Of the region’s 88 new cases reported on June 28, 87 were agri-food workers. On June 29, 96 of 98 positive tests were from that sector.
The results represent the two highest daily case count increases in the region since the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19 cases on local farms have complicated Windsor-Essex’s transition to the second stage of reopening, initially holding back the entire region. The province later reversed that decision, instead holding back only Leamington and Kingsville, Ont., where the farm outbreaks are located.
The local health unit reported June 29 that six farms remain in outbreak, but Ahmed would not disclose the names of the operations, saying the risk they currently represent to the public is “negligible”
While Windsor-Essex does not specify if the workers are local or part of the temporary foreign worker program, Ahmed has previously said that 90% of the cases are among migrant workers.
He said the latest cases are linked to a single farm, but Premier Doug Ford said he believes the “full surge” in testing will continue to show cases on farms around the region.
“I don’t think it’s contained to one farm, to be very frank,” the premier said June 29, adding that the province is bolstering resources in the region.
“It’s just a full out onslaught down there to nip this in the bud.”
Last week, Ontario announced a three-point plan to address the farm outbreaks, including the introduction of on-site testing.
Ford said June 29 farm testing will be expanded to other areas of the province where agriculture sector outbreaks have been reported.
“We’re going to do the same in Niagara (and) other farming communities,” he said. “We have to protect the people.”
Hundreds of migrant workers across the province have tested positive for the virus and three have died.
Health officials have said cramped living and worker quarters continue to contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses — many of them from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. This year, they were required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
Ahmed said he and the health unit’s CEO spent the weekend putting out calls for help to bolster local contact tracing resources.
A dozen workers from neighbouring health units — including the London-Middlesex associate chief medical officer of health — have been temporarily seconded to Windsor-Essex to help, he added.
“With the additional staffing support from the other neighbouring health units … our team of nurse practitioners, public health nurses, and public health inspectors will be on site to do health assessments on all these workers who tested positive,” he said.
Advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers called for the shutdown of the province’s entire agri-food sector until every workplace can be fully sanitized and safety measures put in place to protect workers.
“The industry must immediately cease production and as a society we must demand that the interests of the workers are paramount not the profits of a billion dollar industry,” Chris Ramsaroop said in a statement. “All workers should be paid full salaries during the entire shut-down.”
Meanwhile, five more people have tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak linked to a nail salon in Kingston, Ont.
The Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health unit said a total of 27 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are linked to the salon.
“We don’t want to blame any particular business. We all have to learn from this nasty, slippery, sneaky virus that can spread very quickly from person-to-person in these settings,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, medical health official for the region, who acknowledged that small outbreaks like this are an inherent risk of the reopening process.
He said most of the cases related to the outbreak were showing minimal symptoms and no one had been hospitalized. All of the people who have tested positive are self-isolating at home, he said.
Moore also said that nearly 3,000 people have been tested in the area in the past week.
On June 29, the City of Kingston made wearing a face mask mandatory in all indoor public places following the outbreak at the nail salon.
Mayor Bryan Paterson said that means people will have to wear a mask to enter places including grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants and hair and nail salons.
Ontario reported 257 new cases of COVID-19 on June 26 and seven new deaths related to the virus. The total number of cases now stands at 34,911, including 30,196 cases marked as resolved and 2,665 deaths.
The Ministry of Health said it was able to complete more than 27,000 tests for the novel coronavirus on June 29.
By Shawn Jeffords
— with files from John Chidley-Hill.