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Windsor-Essex health unit orders farms to postpone arrival of temporary foreign workers until February

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WINDSOR A health unit decision to prohibit farms from bringing temporary foreign workers to Windsor-Essex for three weeks has area growers crying foul.

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In response to a “significant” number of COVID-19 outbreaks at county farms, the health unit on Wednesday released a new letter of instruction ordering employers of temporary foreign workers to immediately “cancel, suspend, or postpone any arrangements to facilitate entry or arrival” of migrant workers until at least Feb. 2.

“We’re in a public health emergency in Windsor-Essex,” said acting medical officer of health Dr.  Shanker  Nesathurai. “The burden of COVID-19 among the migrant farm worker community at the current time exceeds the community resources to manage the appropriate and compassionate response.”

As of Wednesday morning, eight agricultural businesses have active COVID-19 cases, with 15 bunkhouses impacted. Roughly 275 temporary foreign workers out of an estimated 2,000 in Essex County are self-isolating after either testing positive or coming in close contact with an infected person.

The Windsor hotel used for self-isolating farm workers, which was empty about a week ago, is now full, Nesathurai said. Workers are self-isolating in at least three additional hotels “not as robust in providing clinical support as the self-isolation hotel.” The human resources necessary to monitor and tend to those isolating are also limited.

About 40 workers who require isolation are waiting for appropriate residences.

Not all farms, however, are behind the health unit’s decision.

“This is unconscionable, what’s happening,” said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. “We’re still trying to figure out what our position is – it was dropped like a bomb on us very late (Tuesday).”

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While Nesathurai indicated the pause on new temporary foreign workers could extend beyond Feb. 2 if necessary, Sbrocci told the Windsor Star he hopes the problem is solved “long before” January’s end. An estimated 2,000 workers were expected to arrive in the coming weeks, without whom the “robust but not impervious” food supply system will suffer.

More than 95 per cent of workers arriving at the region are double vaccinated, and many have received a booster shot, he said. Since the pandemic began and following the second wave – during which the agricultural sector saw hundreds of COVID-19 cases – farms have adapted, establishing residences to accommodate self-isolation.

“We’ve learned much over the last two years. Why don’t we employ some of it?” Sbrocchi said. Growers may face watching their livelihoods “flushed down the toilet,” while workers who have returned to Canada for years to support their families abroad are “stuck in solitary confinement.”

“I feel like we’re targeting all the wrong people, the people that have done everything right.”

With local hospitals at 97 per cent capacity and 87 COVID patients already hospitalized, the health unit is working to prevent further strain on the healthcare system, Nesathurai said.

New arrivals and those who’ve lived in the region “for some time” are both becoming sick.

“We have already exhausted our ability to self-isolate people,” the top doctor said.

“There’s not a single person who has been unaffected by COVID-19 in our community – I have concern for all people who have been disadvantaged by public health measures. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to do our very best to manage the pandemic in an appropriate, compassionate way.”

The health unit on Wednesday reported 439 new cases of COVID-19 across Windsor-Essex, “an underestimate” due to restrictions on testing.

The COVID-related death of a man in his 80s was also reported. The man lived in a long-term care or retirement home.

The region has 3,651 active cases, an all-time high.

tcampbell@postmedia.com

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