Province joins call for feds to vaccinate migrant farm workers

·3 min read

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit is preparing to vaccinate migrant farm workers once Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout starts on April 1 — unless Ottawa or the province beats them to it.

“We’ve had dialogue with both federal and provincial officials to encourage them to vaccinate workers when they arrive at the airport. We think that’s a good public health strategy,” said Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer of health.

On Thursday, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health said the province was in talks with the federal government to get farm workers their shots when they touch down in Canada.

“We’re working with the federal government on this (and) hopefully they will be OK to do it,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe said. “But I think if they don’t do it, we will probably do it, because it’s important.”

The province sees migrant farmer workers as a priority for Phase 2 because they live in high-risk group settings and are not able to work from home.

The essential workers are especially important to Haldimand-Norfolk, since without the labour of some 4,000 men and women from Mexico and the Caribbean, much of the fruit and vegetables grown in the region — and distributed internationally — could not be harvested.

Nesathurai has formally requested that Ottawa vaccinate farm workers and take over the 14-day quarantine program.

His Section 22 orders in the name of worker safety — which restrict bunkhouse occupancy during quarantine and mandate that workers be transported by private car in groups no larger than three, as opposed to using buses — have drawn the ire of farmers who say the rules are too restrictive.

Yaffe addressed the transportation order, which sparked a protest on Tuesday that saw more than 200 farmers drive their tractors to the Simcoe fairgrounds. She said if buses are used for transport from the airport, the province would like workers to be cohorted so the same workers are going to the same farms, rather than mixing and “causing potential issues” at multiple farms.

“I’m aware of the order that the medical officer in Haldimand-Norfolk did. I think from a public health infection control point of view, it’s important, but on the other hand it presents many logistical difficulties for the farm,” Yaffe added.

While senior levels of governments debate the issue, Haldimand-Norfolk’s vaccine task force is formulating a plan to vaccinate farm workers in case the responsibility ends up falling to them.

Norfolk EMS chief Sarah Page, who leads the rollout, envisions dedicated clinics for farm workers with Spanish-speaking translators on hand

“Our thoughts are that we would be contacting the farmers and getting lists of eligible migrant farm workers, prioritizing those that live in congregate settings, and working with them to get the consent and education pieces completed,” Page said.

“Then we would book them into our current clinical settings for vaccination, likely in cohorts if translation services would be helpful to aid in the process.

Yaffe said there remain many details to work out, including how to ensure workers understand that vaccination is voluntary. Workers must give “informed consent” to be inoculated.

She noted that while vaccinating farm workers will not eliminate the risk of farm outbreaks, it should help lower the chances.

“If people are showing up and they are already incubating (the disease), the vaccine is too late,” Yaffe said.

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