Vaccinations underway for Norfolk County migrant farm workers

·4 min read

With the federal and provincial governments thus far unwilling to vaccinate migrant farm workers when they land at the airport, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit has taken on the job.

“I’m happy to announce that we have completed two successful test clinics — with the permission of the province — over the past week, where we have vaccinated approximately 340 temporary farm workers that have been out of their mandatory federal quarantine period of two weeks,” Norfolk EMS chief Sarah Page, who leads the health unit’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, told reporters on Tuesday.

The health unit has scheduled a full-day clinic for migrant farm workers on Saturday, after which Page expects 80 per cent of the workers who have cleared quarantine to be vaccinated.

The province has given permission for farm workers to be vaccinated in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout, but has not followed through on an earlier offer to give workers their shots when they land in Toronto from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Norfolk County farms employ over 4,000 migrant workers every year to fill farm labour jobs.

Page said as more workers arrive, the health unit will continue working with farmers to ensure their workforce is vaccinated “in a timely manner.”

Some farmers have chafed at health unit rules that put restrictions on the transport and housing of newly arrived migrant workers during their mandatory 14-day quarantine. Farmers argue the rules are more cumbersome than in neighbouring jurisdictions and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

After a recent protest that saw more than 200 farmers drive their tractors to the Simcoe fairgrounds to decry the Section 22 orders mandated by medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the local board of health brought farmers’ concerns to the province’s top doctor, Dr. David Williams, and Health Ministry representatives.

The board — chaired by Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp — also hired a Toronto law firm that specializes in health administration law to advise on “a number of matters of immediate concern.”

Nesathurai is expected to appear before the board on Wednesday. On the agenda is his Section 22 order that says farmers cannot use buses to transport workers from the airport, and instead must drive workers in private cars with one to three passengers, depending on where they will quarantine.

While speaking at the protest, Chopp criticized this latest order and said board members were prepared to resign en masse if their authority remained curtailed.

Nesathurai defended his orders as necessary to safeguard workers’ health and keep the broader community safe by limiting the chance and scope of farm outbreaks. He has publicly asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to have Ottawa take over responsibility for the farm worker quarantine program.

Some farmers say the health unit is using the term “outbreak” too liberally, since one positive test among workers arriving at the airport will trigger an outbreak declaration even if the worker has never stepped foot on the farm.

Page said two local farms are currently in outbreak, a provincial designation that is automatically applied to a congregate setting where a single case of COVID-19 is confirmed.

One of the affected farms is Kichler Bros. in Simcoe, where farmer Ryan Kichler said one migrant worker tested positive at the airport.

“He has no signs or symptoms of COVID-19 and is feeling well,” Kichler said.

“Kichler Bros. Inc. is working closely with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit to ensure that the individual, the other seasonal agricultural workers and our community remain safe and healthy.”

Tiffany Chanyi, assistant manager at Shabatura Produce in Windham Centre, said while she understands the health unit is legally compelled to classify a single case as an outbreak, the designation does not match what is happening on the ground.

“Any of these ‘outbreaks’ should not be called an outbreak, as it is one individual testing positive at the airport, who is then in turn living in isolation, carrying out the full 14-day quarantine, where the virus dies off,” Chanyi said. “Zero chances of contagion to the community.”

She said the health unit singles out farms when reporting new cases.

“To continuously point out farm outbreaks is frustrating, because this is not happening to other businesses in the area, even though there have been many ‘outbreaks’ in restaurants, grocery stores, box stores, et cetera,” Chanyi said.

Page said farm workers who test positive have close contacts traced and are retested after 10 days, adding that the health unit has found “no evidence” that recent farm outbreaks were triggered by false positives.

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