By Kaitlyn Clark
The Haldimand Press
VITTORIA—The COVID-19 disease trend for Haldimand and Norfolk has seen a sharp spike this week as the virus has spread to at least 164 individuals from Scotlynn Group farms in Vittoria. This presents about a 75% increase to previous cases.
May 29, 2020 the Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit (HNHU) announced that three workers from a then-unnamed agricultural enterprise had been admitted to Norfolk General Hospital with COVID-19 symptoms, one of whom had already tested positive for the disease. At that time, paramedics tested every person in the migrant worker residences and other employees of the business.
HNHU began tracing anyone who may have had close contact with those involved, who would be put in self-isolation and/or tested as needed.
The following morning, there were three positive cases, 26 people considered symptomatic, and approximately 140 people in isolation. Those with symptoms were separated from those who were asymptomatic.
Early on May 31, HNHU announced that of the 90 test results received so far, 85 had tested positive and five had been admitted to hospital. By that night, Norfolk Mayor and Board of Health Chair, Kristal Chopp, posted to Facebook that “more than 120 individuals from the farm” had tested positive and seven were in hospital.
“We have always understood that this was a risk that our community could face and our health unit has been preparing for this possibility. Other communities in Ontario and across the country have also faced similar situations with on-farm outbreaks,” said Chopp. “Our health unit is working hard alongside Scotlynn Farms and the Delhi Community Health Centre team to ensure the health and safety of the affected workers and the members of our community as a whole.”
Chopp noted that employees from a store in the community are also being tested “out of an abundance of caution”, but that “this action should not be construed as anything other than our health unit undertaking additional testing to provide peace of mind to a limited number of individuals”.
As of June 1, approximately 210 test results had been received, with 164 positive. Matt Terry, Director of Corporate Communications for Norfolk, said these numbers are related to cases on the farm specifically. Seven workers remained in hospital.
Medical Officer of Health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai stated May 30 that the HNHU is still collecting data on the outbreak and therefore the origin of the virus was still unknown. However, the workers did serve out the entirety of their two-week isolation period when they previously arrived in Canada.
“These people (migrant workers) completed their self-isolation period,” said Nesathurai, noting the many points of public travel involved in workers going to their home airport, then on the plane to Toronto, which is an “endemic area with many, many cases”, and finally to the farm. Nesathurai stated, “All of those (points of travel) carry additional risk, but when they arrive at the farm, the farmer has a self-isolation plan, whether at a hotel, a bunkhouse, or a trailer…. They serve their two-week period just like any other person returning to Canada. During that two-week period, if they had had COVID-19 they would have cleared it. They either would have gotten sick, and we would have known they had gotten sick and we would have extended the quarantine period until it cleared, or they would have had no symptoms and they still would have cleared the virus even if they had it.”
Once the isolation period is served, Nesathurai said the workers are like any other resident of the health district: “Once they serve the self-isolation period, the risk of getting it from them is the same as anyone else in the community. They could be more identifiable because of their race, but the risk is the same…. When you think of risk, the risk is never zero. We should still continue with social distancing and avoiding travelling outside the home. I don’t think that if someone interacted with a farm worker their risk is any greater than anyone else in the community.”
A plan was being developed by the Delhi Community Health Centre, who sent a team to evaluate symptomatic workers, to monitor the workers during their new isolation and recovery period. The liaison official for the Mexican consulate has been updated, and is available to speak to workers. As well, the federal agency that supervises the temporary foreign worker program has been advised of the outbreak.
Terry noted that all farm workers, regardless of test results, are remaining on the farm property “so they are all sort of isolated there”. Any workers that test positive are undergoing isolation alone, such as in hotel rooms.
“There is also a farmer in our community that is hurting right now. Scott Biddle has, since the start of this pandemic, done everything that was asked of him, and more, by our health unit, including quarantining his workers individually in hotels. Unfortunately, even with the best efforts, he is now dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and his operations have been severely impacted,” said Chopp. “In order to save his crop, Scotlynn Farms is putting out a call to the community for help…. So I ask that you please consider stepping up during this time of crisis.”
Scotlynn Group posted to Facebook as well, requesting workers as “a large number of employees” are unable to work while they remain in isolation.
“There will be $25/hour per person employment opportunities for any groups of five looking for work at our Vittoria, Ontario, Canada location,” read the post. “It is mandatory that you provide your own group of five. Each group will be isolated on a 10-acre asparagus field harvesting from 7 a.m. through approximately 4 p.m. daily. There will be no interactions with other groups. For more information please call 800-263-9117 ext. 2225 and speak with Jorden.”
“Thank you to everyone that has extended kind words and best wishes to the members of our workforce,” stated the post. “The support of our community is greatly appreciated through this difficult situation.”
This situation is evolving. For updates, follow The Haldimand Press on Facebook or visit haldimandpress.com/covid-19.