Officials in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex region called on the provincial or federal government Friday to take the reins in tackling COVID-19 outbreaks in farms, saying the situation requires more co-ordination than they can provide themselves.
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said there have been instances where “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” and having a lead agency would help prevent that.
“Everyone is doing the best they can do locally but this type of situation requires a different level of co-ordination because of the complexity involved,” he said in a news conference with other local leaders Friday morning.
“What we want to do is make sure there are no gaps,” and no duplication of efforts, he said.
He noted, for example, that if migrant workers who test positive are being housed in a hotel, there must also be arrangements to deliver meals to them so they don’t have to leave their rooms.
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said there should be incentives for farms to have their workers tested, or fines for those who refuse.
“It’s a prickly issue, no one seems to want to take that on but someone needs to. If we don’t get somebody to do this, we’ll just keep going round and round in circles,” she said.
“There has to be something, a carrot or a stick, basically.”
Asked whether the province was willing to take over the COVID-19 response in the area, Premier Doug Ford would only say it’s “all hands on deck” when it comes to addressing farm outbreaks.
He said federal and provincial inspectors are already in the region, as are local and provincial health officials and the Ministry of Health.
Farms in Windsor-Essex have been hit hard by COVID-19, with four currently in outbreak.
Hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive for the virus, and three have died — two of them in Windsor-Essex and one in Norfolk County.
Two more farm workers were reported to have tested positive on Friday, according to the Windsor-Essex health unit.
Health officials in Lambton County said they have offered voluntary, on-site testing to farms in that region that hire temporary foreign workers or seasonal employees.
Of the 86 tests completed at six farms in the last two weeks, 84 have been negative and two are still pending, the health unit said.
Lambton County expects to see between 200 and 300 temporary foreign workers arrive for seasonal work at area farms, it said.
“The response has been good and we are having regular conversations with local farm operators on how to prevent COVID-19 transmission and manage the risk for any possible outbreak,” Dr. Sudit Ranade, the county’s medical officer of health, said in a statement.
Ontario reported 116 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and seven new deaths due to the novel coronavirus.
The total number of cases now stands at 36,464, which includes 32,155 marked as resolved and 2,710 deaths.
The province is also reporting 178 newly resolved cases today. More than 27,484 tests for the novel coronavirus were completed over the previous 24 hours.
The number of people in hospital because of the virus dropped slightly, while people in intensive care and on ventilators both slightly increased.
The farm outbreaks delayed the economic reopening in the Windsor-Essex region, particularly in the towns of Leamington and Kingsville, which were the last two communities to reach Stage 2 this week.
The Ontario government last week deployed a team from its emergency management agency to help co-ordinate care and housing for farm workers who tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, Ford planned to make multiple public appearances at businesses on Friday to thank Ontario workers for their service during the pandemic.
The premier, alongside Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli, promoted a program meant to help Ontarians identify products made in the province, in an effort to boost the local economy.
The Ontario Made program, which is run by the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters organization, is receiving $500,000 in provincial funding through the Ontario Together Fund launched in April.