By Kaitlyn Clark
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—The outbreak of COVID-19 at a Scotlynn Group farm in Vittoria has grown to 199 positive cases of migrant farm workers and 18 positive cases “among people associated with the farm”. Over a dozen patients have since been treated in hospital, one of whom has died due to COVID-19 complications.
The Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit (HNHU) announced the migrant worker’s death on June 21, 2020. The worker was identified as a male who had been in intensive care when he died, but no further details are being released to protect patient privacy. Haldimand Norfolk Medical Officer of Health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, a member of the Catholic clergy, and HNHU staff visited workers at the farm on June 20 to personally deliver the news.
“I’m extremely saddened at this loss of life,” said Kristal Chopp, Chair of the Board of Health and Norfolk Mayor. “It’s an absolute tragedy that someone who comes to Canada to work in the agricultural industry and support his family back home loses his life so far from his loved ones. My sincerest condolences go out to the individual’s family during this difficult time.”
The HNHU release noted, “The outbreak continues to be largely contained to the farm, and any close contacts of farm workers are in self-isolation. The Health Unit team continues to manage the situation in an effort to bring the outbreak to a conclusion.”
Many have questioned how this type of outbreak could occur, including MPP Toby Barrett, who announced recently, “I have asked the Ministers of Labour, Health and Agriculture to continue investigating why this was allowed to happen.”
During a previous hearing before Ontario’s Health and Services Appeal and Review Board, Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist, referred to the Scotlynn outbreak as a “failure of quarantine.” Her assessment indicated that the outbreak likely originated outside of Canada, prior to the workers’ arrival.
Matt Terry, Director of Corporate Communications for Norfolk County, said, “The investigation as to how the outbreak began continues. It may be difficult to determine how it began. Regardless, our priority is managing the outbreak and bringing it to a conclusion.”
COVID-19 safety for farmers and seasonal agricultural workers
HNHU has a webpage devoted to its handling of seasonal agricultural workers, collecting resources for farmers and employees in one location. The page outlines the requirements to obtain approval for the workers before entry, which centres around an isolation plan and guidelines for enhanced cleaning, along with recommendations to maintain safety.
Once workers have arrived, it is up to the employer to enforce mandated isolation, to check in daily to monitor for symptoms, and to notify HNHU if symptoms arise. The employer section on arrival of workers notes that a compliance audit “may” be scheduled by a bylaw enforcement officer. A section of legal requirements under the worker section notes, “All locations will be subjected to random checks and audits…. Additionally, given seasonal farmworkers from abroad are subject to the Quarantine Act, federal regulators may also require inspection and take legal action where required.”
Nesathurai required workers to be isolated with a maximum of three workers to a bunkhouse. Local farmers appealed this restriction to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board. The Board upheld the need for an isolation plan to be approved, but removed the requirement that limited the number of workers to three, instead requiring each bunkhouse to be individually evaluated to determine an appropriate number.
Once the initial isolation is completed, however, these restrictions are no longer in place regardless. Instead, it is “recommended” that farms continue practising COVID-19 safety precautions. It remains up to the employer to “regularly” monitor for symptoms among seasonal workers.
Post-isolation recommendations include:
- Keep beds and other seating two metres apart from each other to better ensure physical distancing.
- Encourage workers to practise proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
- Provide masks, sanitizer, and other personal protective equipment where tasks require workers to be working in close proximity to one another.
- Encourage workers to avoid sharing household items.
- Organize a schedule to avoid crowding common spaces.
- Provide the necessary supplies to frequently disinfect high touch surfaces like door handles, light switches, faucets, etc.
- Limit the number of workers going into town.
- Inform workers to avoid large group gatherings as per regulatory requirements in the community.
- Keep workers informed about any COVID-19 updates daily.
Update on outbreak at farm
June 24, 2020, Simcoe, ON – The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit continues to work to resolve the outbreak at the farm. Approximately 220 migrant farm workers live in residences on the farm. Approximately 200 people have tested positive. Two workers are currently hospitalized.
The approach to manage a COVID-19 case is for the person affected to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. At the present time, approximately 140 migrant workers have completed the self-isolation period.
“Once the self-isolation period is over, these workers have the same right to travel in the community as all Canadians,” says Kristal Chopp, Chair of the Board of Health. “Migrant workers travel a long way from home to support their families and ensure area farms can continue to grow the produce Ontario needs. I know the local community will continue to welcome these workers as we all make our way through this difficult time.”
Updates from the Health Unit are available at hnhu.org/covid-19.