With more on-farm, mobile testing for COVID-19 among the agrifood workforce in the Kingsville and Leamington communities, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) announced on June 29 that another 183 positive cases have been identified over the weekend. Almost all cases were asymptomatic, displaying no symptoms, but it is unknown how many, if any, of these cases have the potential to spread the infection.
Six outbreaks are attributed to farm settings in Leamington and Kingsville, with one farm accounting for 175 cases. The farm’s name has not been published by the health unit which is abiding by provincial privacy laws.
“Testing is not a preventable measure,” said Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health, Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) in his daily briefing. “It’s a point in time…the bigger issue is how to house the workers appropriately.”
It’s become clear that a significant risk factor is the comingling of employees who live on the farm (contact cases), with contract work crews that live offsite and work on multiple farms (community cases). To address this risk factor, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA)’s chair Bill George is calling for the use of stricter approaches in high priority regions to:
- Undertake proactive testing of all agri-food employees through expanded deployment on-site testing resources
- Limit all employees to working on one farm operation at a time during the pandemic
- Deploy resources to enforce compliance with local health unit orders to restrict movement of contract workers from farm to farm
“I am calling on growers to take the risk of an outbreak on their farm extremely seriously and take every step possible to protect your employees. We must work together to protect our essential agricultural workers.
Referring to the most recent weekend outbreak, Dr. Ahmed explained that a mix of testing results are observed. Some farms have no positive cases, some have a few and others may have dozens. A PCR test does not differentiate when the virus was acquired, whether it was a month ago or recently. The case may be a previous infection which has been resolved.
Until follow-up interviews have been conducted with each worker to assess whether earlier symptoms were not reported, it’s too early to make a definitive analysis of virus transmission in these most recent cases.
“The biggest area of concern right now is the role of contractors,” said Dr. Ahmed. “They are bringing in potentially infected workers who are moving from farm to farm.”
He also pointed out that Windsor-Essex region has up to 10,000 temporary foreign workers, the highest concentration in the province of Ontario. With the recent spike in positive cases, the health unit has called for extra help from other units to do contact tracing.
As of June 25, 477 agri-farm workers have tested positive in Windsor-Essex, requiring considerable work for case and contact management and investigation. Each case in the agriculture sector has an average of eight to12 contacts, totalling between 3,000 and 5,000 additional persons for daily case and contact management by health unit staff.
Sources: Windsor-Essex County Health Unit June 29, 2020 briefing and news release; OFVGA June 25, 2020 news release.