TORONTO — Ontario would like to see migrant farm workers vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they arrive and is willing to take on the task if Ottawa doesn't, a top provincial health official said Thursday.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate medical officer of health, said the province is in talks with the federal government to have the temporary foreign workers given a vaccine "when they come in, optimally at the airport."
"We're working with the federal government on this, hopefully they will be OK to do it," Yaffe said. "If they don't do it, we will probably do it because it's important."
During the first wave of the pandemic, dozens of farm outbreaks were reported across Ontario as the province struggled to test and isolate workers.
More than 1,780 temporary foreign workers tested positive for COVID-19 in the province last year, and three died of the virus.
Advocates, doctors and labour groups have been calling on all levels of government to ensure the vaccination of all migrant and undocumented workers.
Yaffe said vaccinating migrant farm workers on arrival would involve many considerations, including ensuring information is properly translated so workers can understand that the immunization process is voluntary.
Some 20,000 temporary foreign workers are employed on Ontario farms each year.
Farm workers are to be vaccinated in the second phase of Ontario's vaccine rollout, set to begin next month.
Migrant farm workers are listed as priorities during that phase because many live in congregate settings considered high-risk for COVID-19 spread.
Syed Hussan with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change said officials should consult with worker groups to ensure proper protocols are in place for the vaccination plan.
Airport situations can be stressful, he said, as workers encounter immigration officials and take COVID-19 tests. He said measures must be taken to ensure people can comfortably say yes or no to the shot.
Hussan also questioned the reason the province is offering vaccinations at the airport. He said it suggests the government doesn't trust employers and that workers aren't able to take measures to protect themselves because of their immigration status.
"This is translating into saying that the Ontario government doesn't believe that farm workers can go get health care in Ontario, because if they could, you wouldn't have to offer it at the airport," he said.
Hussan's organization wants all levels of government to ensure that people without permanent immigration status can access vaccines without having to share identifying information like a health card.
Yaffe also said Thursday that more contagious COVID-19 "variants of concern" now make up half of new cases in the province.
The province's top doctor has said variants of COVID-19 are causing more severe illness, leading to intensive care admissions and deaths.
Dr. David Williams also noted this week that more young people appear to be getting more severely ill from the variants.
The scientific director of an expert panel advising the province said Thursday that a strict provincial shutdown, similar to one imposed when the pandemic hit, is needed to curb the alarming spread of variants in Ontario.
Currently, even the strictest level of the province's pandemic framework isn't enough to reduce rising infections from more contagious variants, said Dr. Peter Juni of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
"This pandemic has never been under the control since it started to (take) hold in Ontario, and that's the challenge," Juni said in an interview.
"We need stronger, more strict public health measures to keep the new variants contained enough to avoid tremendous challenges for the health-care system."
The variant first detected in Britain is the most common one in Ontario, though variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil have also appeared across the province.
While Ontario's vaccination effort is ongoing, Juni said it can't move fast enough to protect the population from the variants that have also driven dire waves of infection across Europe.
The province should move quickly to impose strict measures to clamp down on variants, he said, while encouraging safe outdoor activities where people stay at least two metres apart.
"If we now do everything right, this will be the last time that we need to go into harsh restrictions," he said.
Ontario reported 2,380 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, although the Ministry of Health said the number was inflated by about 280 cases due to a data processing issue.
Ontario also reported 17 more deaths linked to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press