TORONTO - COVID-19 cases among agri-food workers in Windsor-Essex have spiked this week, the Ontario region's top doctor said Wednesday, as a provincial effort to test all migrant workers for the virus ramped up.
The region's medical officer of health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, said 38 additional workers had tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of infections in the sector to over 200 since the start of the pandemic.
Of those cases, about 90 per cent are temporary foreign workers, he added.
"We are seeing a ... spike in our local community cases in the migrant farm or temporary foreign workers population," Ahmed said. "We need to get a better understanding of how we can support that particular group and there's a lot of community players working together outside of the public health trying to find better solution to address them."
Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses. Many of the workers come from Mexico, the Caribbean and Guatemala and when they arrived this year they were required to self-isolate for 14 days.
Outbreaks that have affected dozens of migrant workers have been reported in Chatham-Kent, Niagara Region and Elgin County.
An outbreak in Norfolk County has seen 165 workers at a local farm test positive for COVID-19, with seven of them admitted to hospital.
Two migrant workers have also died as a result of COVID-19 in Windsor-Essex.
Last week, in response to outbreaks on farms in southwestern Ontario, Premier Doug Ford ordered government health officials to ramp up COVID-19 testing among migrant workers.
At the time, Ford said it was a crucial move to protect both the workers and ensure the safety of the province's food supply chain.
"I will definitely be addressing this with public health to make sure that we get all the migrant workers tested to keep them safe, to keep the supply chain and the food safe," he said at the time. "We're on this."
Ahmed said he expects that as this proactive effort by the province and the health unit continues, more workers will test positive for COVID-19.
"We are actively looking for cases which will definitely bring in more cases," he said.
Ahmed said the health unit will also begin to publicly disclose all workplace outbreaks in the region later this week, something that is not required by the province.
Previously, the health unit had only disclosed the number of workers, but not where they worked. The health unit will also close workplaces if it feels they present a risk to the public and that too will be made public, he added.
"Public disclosure is an important part of community education and (an) effective measure in reducing the spread of infection," Ahmed said.
Karen Cocq, the campaigns co-ordinator for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the spike in worker illness in Windsor-Essex isn't surprising to advocates.
Both the provincial and federal government need to take immediate action to protect workers during the pandemic and over the long-term.
The province should increase proactive inspections of farms and also mandate public disclosure of all outbreaks. Often even workers on the farms don't have enough information about an outbreak, she said.
"It's important for the public ... to know what's happening in some of these workplaces," she said. "The broader public, and people inside the workplace, need to be able to protect themselves."
Cocq said the government should also order workplaces with outbreaks to temporarily close.
"Where there are COVID outbreaks, with there should be work stoppages immediately until facilities can be cleaned and disinfected and the health and safety of workers can be guaranteed before they are made to return," she said.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government has not ruled out mandatory public disclosure of workplace outbreaks.
NDP health critic Frances Gelinas said public disclosure of all workplace outbreaks will be important as the province continues to reopen.
The province should make public disclosure of COVID outbreaks in workplaces mandatory, she said.
"Full disclosure is how we learn," Gelinas said. "This is how we protect lives and this is how we stop the virus."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.