Public health struggling with COVID-19 outbreak in St. Catharines
UPDATE: This from CTV News Thursday: “It’s asparagus harvest season, but some of the fields in Norfolk County, Ontario, are all but empty following an outbreak of COVID-19 that has spread to 164 migrant workers from Mexico, temporarily halting production. Last Thursday, a worker at Scotlynn Group complained of symptoms; just days later, more than half of the 216 migrant workers tested positive. Seven are hospitalized, including two in intensive care. Health officials have already started contact tracing while more still awaited results. Only 33 are able to work in the field.”
The message from the Town of NOTL is “#StaysafeNOTL.” Our hearts and thoughts are with all the men and women who have tested positive in Norfolk County and other areas, including St. Catharines, and to all those who have come to our community, and indeed our country, to support our agricultural industry and help ensure our food supply. To every farm employee, and the farmers working with them and caring for them: Stay safe.
Reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers in other Ontario farming communities have local farmers “doubling down” in their diligence to protect their workers.
Coun. Erwin Wiens, who has taken the lead on the issue since the pandemic threatened the arrival of migrant workers, considered essential to the agricultural community, told councillors Monday he has been in touch with some of the local growers. He reached out following the news that 17 employees at Pioneer Flower Farms in St. Catharines have tested positive.
That number was as of Tuesday, with more test results pending.
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, says farm workers living in close quarters face a similar risk of the virus spreading as through family members in a household, suggesting they should still be keeping a physical distance when possible.
The migrant workers that have tested positive are now isolated from the others, who have been divided into two groups, those considered at high risk because of their contact with those who have tested positive, and those at low risk, Hirji said.
Although there was some discussion at the provincial level about testing all migrant workers, Hirji said he believes “we’re not there yet.”
The public health department has contacted all farmers in Niagara to ensure they understand their responsibilities, which include checking in with workers daily to ask if they have any symptoms, and making sure there are adequate quarters for self-isolating if necessary. Public health is also calling on farmers to provide personal protective equipment for workers.
The local outbreak has been an opportunity to “learn some lessons” on how to reduce the risk of it spreading amongst other groups of workers, said Hirji, including the importance of being tested right away, with even mild symptoms.
Some people feel they can “just power through” the disease, instead of coming forward for testing, he said.
Pioneer Flower Farm owners have said their workers will continue to be paid while isolating.
“Everybody’s on pins and needles,” Wiens told councillors Monday.
“Every operation with migrant workers has to follow all the protocols,” including asking daily if they have symptoms. “Hopefully this won’t happen in NOTL.”
It’s devastating for the farms and workers who have contracted the virus, and it would be devastating if it happened here, he said.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero says she and Wiens talk almost daily, and so far haven’t heard any news locally that would be concerning. “Our farming community, like our long-term care community, has really stepped up. There have been no active cases (as of Tuesday), and I count my blessings.”
The outbreak is the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Niagara, apart from long-term care homes, and was responsible for the majority of the 23 new cases reported in the region Monday.
Across Ontario, there was a jump of 404 new cases Monday, 81 of whom were migrant workers in southwestern Ontario.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford said he would be talking to public health officials, to ensure temporary farm workers get tested to keep them safe, and to keep the food supply chain safe.
CBC reported Monday a 31-year-old Mexican seasonal farm worker in the Windsor Essex area, who had been self-isolating in a hotel room, died Saturday due to COVID-19. The man had no underlying health issues, the medical officer of health for the area said.