( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention )

A Windsor-Essex County, Canada, health official used an Ontario statute to order a farm to take workers off the job and self-isolate after at least 191 of them at a greenhouse tested positive for COVID-19, according to Ontario Health results. 

Health officials declined to identify the name of the company, and The Packer was unable to verify the name of the company.

Joseph Sbrocchi, general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, declined to name the company, but said there were only eight workers who experienced symptoms and the rest were asymptomatic.

“Since initial outbreak ... the farm’s running again,” Sbrocchi said July 7. “I think it’s safe to say this is an evolving beast. Has there been a little bit of disruption? Yes, but it’s being rectified.”

Windsor-Essex County is home to about 176 farms and more than 8,000 temporary foreign workers and full-time domestic workers, the majority living in Leamington and Kingsville.

According to a July 6 statement from the health department:

•475 farmworkers from 27 farms tested positive in Leamington and Kingsville between March 31 and June 24;

•As of July 5, 267 farmworkers had recovered and were back to work;

•208 were in isolation;

•Two farmworkers have died;

•Ontario Health is conducting asymptomatic tests at farms.

If there are a couple more farm outbreaks at this level, the effect on the Ontario greenhouse industry could be “more significant,” Sbrocchi said.

The long days and warm weather mean the crops are growing fast, which can cause crop loss when skilled workers are unavailable for two weeks.

“We’ve been able to cobble together a replacement workforce from the community, but they can’t last more than a week or so, and you have to remember they aren’t going to be as skilled as the workers that had to be laid out,” Sbrocchi said.

Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, on July 1 used Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to order the isolation of workers who tested positive and those who came in close contact with them until further notice, according to a July 1 statement.

A Section 22 order can require the closure of a facility, but Ahmed said in this case it directs the company to quarantine affected workers.

“Its focus is to ensure the safety and the wellbeing of the workers that are currently working and also people who do not have the disease right now, how they can be protected and if any of them get the disease, so that they are not infecting other people,” Ahmed said July 3 in a YouTube video update.

“Farms, they all have the same interest. They want to make sure that their workers are protected and their operation is safe. Nobody wants a full-blown outbreak at any of their farms that could jeopardize the entire operation, leading to the point where the facility needs to be shut down or all the workers need to be removed,” Ahmed continued.

Ahmed said in the July 3 update that his order doesn’t prohibit others from taking the place of the isolated workers, but they must be vetted by the health department to avoid the potential of workers moving from one farm to another and spreading the disease.

According to an Ontario provincial plan to protect migrant workers, a limited amount of asymptomatic workers can continue working outdoors in isolation.

“In this particular farm, it wasn’t a limited amount. It was a substantial amount of people,” CEO and chief nursing officer Theresa Marentette said in the health unit’s July 2 health update video.

Windsor-Essex County had 1,725 confirmed cases by July 8, and 45 of the 47 new positive results since July 7 were from people who work in the agriculture sector, Marentette said in the July 8 health unit video.

“The biggest challenge we defined from the beginning of this pandemic, especially with these workers, is the living arrangements and the accommodations of these workers live in,” Ahmed said in the July 8 update. “Once you have a positive case, it’s really easy to pretty much spread it to everyone who lives in the same bunkhouse.”

Related news:

236 employees at Ohio Dole plant are COVID-19 positive

COVID-19 cases mount as summer harvesting heats up

Employers face worker outbreaks, protests, safety hurdles in COVID-19

 
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