Adapting to pandemic: Mobile clinics, virtual check-ups catered to farm workers

·3 min read

In a year that presented migrant farm workers and their employers with no shortage of health-care challenges, the Grand River Community Health Centre found new ways to help.

Since 2014, doctors and social workers from the Brantford-based health centre have provided medical care and advice to farm workers at drop-in clinics in Simcoe and Brantford.

Open on Friday evenings from May to October – to catch workers when they are in town shopping or sending money home – the popular clinics saw 700 workers served between the two locations last year.

“That was our model – do it convenient for the workers and address the barrier of transportation and long work hours,” said Grand River Community Health Centre (GRCHC) executive director Peter Szota.

He explained that providing care to “vulnerable clients” like the thousands of people who come north from Mexico and the Carribean to work on Ontario farms is “a health equity and an access issue.”

The COVID-19 pandemic meant in-person clinics and farm visits from health promoters gave way to virtual assessments by phone or video call, which were appreciated by workers looking for answers, said Janet Noble, director of primary care and community health with the GRCHC.

“They’re just so grateful that we’re offering them care and that we’re listening to their story,” Noble said.

The health team did mobilize to help the Haldimand-Norfolk Heath Unit assess migrant workers at Schuyler Farms during a November outbreak. Workers at the Simcoe fruit farm were familiar with GRCHC staff since farmer Brett Schuyler had asked Noble’s team to run clinics for his approximately 250 employees over the season.

In appreciation, the farm workers sent each member of the GRCHC team a bushel of apples.

“It was so lovely,” Noble said. “We’re grateful for the workers that are providing us with our agriculture, and the farmers are grateful that we’re able to provide some help in the health-care area.”

Jeff Winkelmolen, officer manager at Winkelmolen Nursery Ltd. in Lynden, said having the health centre hold monthly clinics for the 40 Mexican migrant workers on his family’s tree nursery was a big help.

“It was a lot easier for the guys to get the help that they needed,” Winkelmolen said. “Already in a normal year it’s a challenge for these guys to get check-ups and things like that.”

Winkelmolen said the clinics allowed his workforce to receive convenient and confidential care for routine matters like blood pressure checks and prescription refills.

“Anything you would go to your family doctor for is what they were doing,” he said. “The walk-ins don’t really want us there for that, so it takes a long time to get done.”

Having Spanish-speaking social workers on the GRCHC team allowed farm workers to talk in their native language about how they were handling the added stress of working abroad during a pandemic.

“A lot of our guys don’t speak English, so if they have their boss there translating for them, it’s not always the most comfortable,” Winkelmolen said. “All in all, it was a fantastic situation for us. (The health centre) helped us out so much.”

In a normal year, the seasonal health clinics would have ended months ago. But with some Trinidadians still on area farms, Noble said GRCHC staff remain on call.

“Whatever that looks like, we’re here to provide support throughout the winter months,” she said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator