Ontario's top doctor blames farm testing delay in Windsor-Essex on employer confusion

COVID-19 testing on Windsor-Essex farms is starting up again after being at a standstill for more than two weeks — a delay that Ontario's chief medical officer of health said was due to confusion and a lack of communication with employers.

As of July 6, 19 of 176 farms in the region had been tested. More than two weeks later, that number has stayed the same. During a Thursday press conference, Dr. David Williams said testing was "starting back up again."

Williams said there was confusion over the COVID-19 testing, what the isolation process entailed and how those measures would impact business.

"It was more of a pause to improve the communications and coordination to ensure we're working in sync with the farm owners so they understand," Williams said. "Of course the ultimate goal is the protection and health and safety of the farm workers."

The Ministry of Agriculture has now created an online toolkit, Williams said, that outlines the process for farm owners.

"If you're going to ask for the mobile team to come into your farm and do testing, you can see what the expectations are and understand what impact it might have on the farm, working [and] staff," Williams said.

The goal, he added, is still to go and test every farm in the region.

Community support for migrant workers

On Tuesday, the Holiday Inn on Huron Church Road in Windsor opened as the region's second isolation centre for migrant workers.

Between that location and a Best Western in Leamington, about 140 migrant workers are currently in isolation and being cared for by the Canadian Red Cross.

Jason Viau/CBC
Jason Viau/CBC

Tracey Ramsey, the former member of parliament for Essex, said there are many others isolating across the region's hotels and motels that are under the care of their employers or are not being looked after at all.

For this reason, Ramsey and other locals have formed a volunteer group that is delivering supplies to isolating workers who aren't being overseen by the Red Cross.

She said on Tuesday volunteers handed out 300 boxes of food, which still wasn't enough, and have also delivered personal protective equipment.

All of the supplies, Ramsey added, have been donated by the community or local organizations.

In speaking to the workers, Ramsey heard they are worried about their jobs and "frightened" their employers will find out they are receiving help.

Jason Viau/CBC
Jason Viau/CBC

The level of need suggests that there needs to be better transparency, Ramsey said, adding that it's still unclear whether Red Cross, Ontario Health or employers are taking control of the situation.

"I think there are a lot of things missing. First of all: Who's in charge? Who is overseeing this is as clear as mud," she said, noting that the public should know where the gaps are and how they can help.

"Our community is really stepping up to support these workers ... we're trying our best to make sure they get access to as much food as they need because if you're unwell and you have COVID and you're in a room isolating in a foreign country by yourself," said Ramsey.

"The last thing these workers should be worrying about is having enough food to eat," she said.

Ramsey she and other volunteers just want to see employers step up and take proper care of their workers.

COVID-19 assessment centre hours extended

In an email to CBC News, Erie Shores Healthcare communications director Arms Bumanlag said they are ready to reopen their assessment centre at the Nature Fresh Recreation Centre when farms are identified to them by the Ministry of Agriculture and Ontario Health.

The centre closed down last month after not receiving enough traffic, and a sufficient number of farms need to be identified to warrant a redeploying of staff and reopening the centre, he said.

Until then, Bumanlag said the Erie Shores COVID-19 assessment centre is open and "continues to see high numbers from the Essex County area."

The centre has also added dedicated evening hours for greenhouse and farm workers to access their services.