Norfolk’s medical officer seeks relief on bunkhouse quarantines

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand's Medical Officer of Health, has petitioned provincial and federal officials to assume responsibility for administering the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for migrant workers entering Canada. Nesathurai's correspondence Sept. 18 was directed to federal Health Minister Patty Hadju, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Dr. David Williams, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer among others. Monte Sonnenberg/Postmedia Network jpeg, TN

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Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health remains at the centre of a controversy regarding the mandatory quarantine period for migrant workers employed on local farms.

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai’s cap of three workers per bunkhouse regardless of floor area sets Norfolk and Haldimand apart from other health districts in Ontario. The federal standard regarding two metres of social distancing remains in effect in bunkhouses elsewhere in the province, which means available floor area dictates how many workers can quarantine per building.

Local farmers say Nesathurai’s order creates a bottleneck that prevents them from taking on workers in a timely fashion. As such, some claim they are at a disadvantage relative to farmers outside the health district. The order has been challenged at Ontario’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board, the Ontario Court of Justice and has been referred to the Ontario Court of Appeal for review.

Though he has strong views on the quarantine question, Nesathurai would just as soon have the matter off his plate. He said as much in a recent letter to senior provincial and federal officials.

“I am strongly recommending that the federal government organize and manage the initial 14-day self-isolation period for migrant farm workers,” Nesathurai says in the letter, which is dated Sept. 18.

“This program should be in place for the 2021 season. Specifically, I am requesting a program that is similar to the services that were provided to Canadians returning from overseas in the pandemic – that is, from China and cruise ships.”

The model Nesathurai references involved the quarantine at CFB Trenton earlier this year for Canadian cruise ship passengers who were exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Nesathurai’s letter is a follow-up to a resolution Norfolk and Haldimand’s Board of Health passed this summer. That resolution directed Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp, chair of the board of health, to petition Ottawa and Queen’s Park to assume responsibility for the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

At the Oct. 6 meeting of the Norfolk and Haldimand Board of Health, Nesathurai said he has had a productive dialogue with senior government officials on this issue in recent days. He’s optimistic the migrant worker program, which is administered at the federal level, will be fine-tuned given that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to last into 2021.

Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin challenged Nesathurai on this count. She noted that Norfolk County recently received a reply to Chopp’s petition from the federal government, one suggesting the board of health look for relief elsewhere.

“On behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I would like to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence regarding migrant farm workers,” Michael Bredeson, executive correspondence officer in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in an email Sept. 14. “Please be assured that your comments, offered on behalf of Norfolk County, have been carefully reviewed.

“As you know, the issues you raise fall more directly within the purview of the provincial government. While the Prime Minister appreciates being made aware of your concerns, he will leave your correspondence to be considered by the appropriate provincial authority.”

Martin saw little cause for optimism in Bredeson’s reply.

“It doesn’t seem we’re having much luck with the federal government,” she said.

Nesathurai replied he has a good feeling about his recent conversations and that it remains to be seen what action – if any – the federal government takes.