Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health gave assurances this week that federal and provincial officials are working on new bunkhouse rules for migrant workers and will report soon on their conclusions.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai told Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health on Dec. 1 that he is part of a Ministry of Agriculture working group reviewing bunkhouse arrangements in Ontario in light of challenges posed by COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses.
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Nesathurai did not provide details, saying it is up to the Ford government to release its findings. When the province is ready to report, Nesathurai expects it will contain “a lot of meaningful recommendations.”
“It’s hard to give an unqualified endorsement to something you haven’t seen in final form,” Nesathurai said. “We want to prevent outbreaks and keep the community healthy. I think that document will incrementally increase that goal.”
As for the federal government, Nesathurai expects guidance that creates “more uniform standards” in the area of bunkhouses.
The question of migrant housing arrangements is top of mind for large agricultural operations in Norfolk and Haldimand due to the local area’s unique rules regarding the mandatory, 14-day quarantine period for new arrivals in Canada.
Shortly after the global pandemic was declared in March, Nesathurai capped the number of migrant workers who could quarantine in a local bunkhouse at three regardless of the size of the facility. Other health districts applied the federal standard, which requires at least two metres of social distancing at all times. With this approach, the number of new arrivals who can quarantine in a given facility is dictated by floor area.
Nesathurai expects his Section 22 order will remain in effect in the spring of 2021 when the next wave of migrant workers arrives. Despite positive news on the vaccination front, Nesathurai expects the coronavirus to be a persistent threat well into 2021.
“I don’t think a vaccination campaign will eliminate COVID-19 in one year,” he said. “But the hope is fewer people will get sick. There will be blips along the way until we get entire communities vaccinated.
“We look forward to vaccination. There will be an organized campaign for that.”
Some farmers complained that Nesathurai’s order made it difficult for them to situate their labour force during time-sensitive points of the harvest. Nesathurai countered that his quarantine order was not the hardship some made it out to be. He noted Norfolk and Haldimand were still able to welcome their full complement of offshore workers – 4,000 – as they have in previous years. This is the highest per-capita total for any health district in Ontario.
Nesathurai also noted that COVID-19 is “endemic” in Mexico, a primary source of migrant labour in Ontario and elsewhere.
Until the virus is brought to heel, vigilance will be the good word. Marlene Miranda, Norfolk and Haldimand’s general manager of health and social services, expects the health unit in Simcoe will be active Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and possibly every day in between. She told the board everything depends on whether there are outbreaks to monitor and manage.