SIMCOE — The Norfolk County farmer at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak says he spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect the community.
Scott Biddle, president and CEO of Scotlynn Group based in Vittoria, told the Brantford Expositor he chose to isolate his 216 migrant farm workers from Mexico in a hotel when they arrived in Canada.
“Our initial cost, just for our men, was close to $700,000,” Biddle said Monday morning as the number of positive tests for COVID-19 surpassed 120. “To protect the community and the workers, we did what we could.”
Biddle noted that some farmers balked at the extra restrictions imposed on migrant workers by the Haldimand-Norfolk medical officer of health. Dr. Shankar Nesathurai ordered a limit of three migrant workers in a bunkhouse during the initial 14-day quarantine period. The order has been challenged to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board.
“I said right from the beginning, I want to make sure I clear this virus and make sure I’m not bringing it in,” Biddle said. “Everybody was cleared over 25 days ago with no symptoms, and now we have these 125 positive cases that just popped up.”
He said seven workers were in Norfolk General Hospital in Simcoe over the weekend, and four have since been released.
“We have another 118 of these positive cases where virtually those people don’t have any symptoms,” said Biddle, adding that those workers are healthy, confused and don’t know why they are being isolated.
This is something that’s going to spread across farms across the country, and in other businesses
“We are working with the Mexican consulate, and we have a lot of translators on staff,” he noted. “We’ve been able to communicate but it’s more frustration because they’re asymptomatic.”
Biddle said he believes that testing of the general population would show many people to be asymptomatic and positive for the virus.
“Like the health department explained, they could have picked this up from a pop can at the grocery store,” Biddle said. “We don’t know. I think this thing is a lot wider spread than we believe.”
He noted that farms in Leamington have multiple clusters of workers in isolation, and a farm in Niagara had an outbreak Monday morning with 18 cases.
“This is something that’s going to spread across farms across the country, and in other businesses.”
Matt Terry, director of corporate communications for Haldimand-Norfolk health unit, said the Delhi Community Health Centre is assisting in the response to the outbreak. A plan to monitor the workers is being developed by clinical workers.
“As part of the public health management plan, health unit staff are contacting individuals who have been in close contact with a worker for further evaluation,” Terry said. “The liaison official for the Mexican consulate has been updated, and is available to speak to workers.”
The federal agency that oversees the temporary foreign worker program has also been advised of the outbreak, Terry said.
It’s something we can put on the table
“The health unit is working closely with the employer, Norfolk’s Emergency Operations Centre, Norfolk General Hospital and the Delhi Community Health Centre to ensure an effective health management plan is designed to protect the health and well-being of migrant workers and the community as a whole.”
Biddle said his operation was shut down and harvesters, pickers and the facilities cleaned.
He said he expects the disruption in his workforce will not have an impact on his crops.
On its Facebook page, Scotlynn Group expressed thanks for community support for its workers.
The company said it is offering temporary jobs, at $25 an hour, for groups of five people looking for work at their Vittoria operation.
“It is mandatory that you provide your own group of five,” the post noted. “Each group will be isolated on a 10-acre asparagus field harvesting from 7 a.m. through approximately 4 p.m. daily. There will be no interactions with other groups.”
If interested, call 1-800-263-9117.
Biddle said the company got good response to its job offer Sunday night and Monday morning.
“But we still are looking for a few more teams of five,” he said. “We’re looking to hire some local temporary labour for the next two weeks.”
Meantime, Premier Doug Ford pledged Monday to ramp up testing for thousands of migrant workers across Ontario because of the new farm outbreaks.
“I will definitely be addressing this with public health to make sure that we get all the migrant workers tested to keep them safe, to keep the supply chain and the food safe,” he said. “We’re on this.”
About 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses. Outbreaks that have affected dozens of migrant workers also have been reported in Chatham-Kent, Windsor-Essex, Niagara Region and Elgin County.
Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp said an outbreak affecting migrant workers was anticipated.
“We have always understood that this was a risk that our community could face and our health unit has been preparing for this possibility,” Chopp said in a statement.
Last month, advocates for migrant workers said the province should ramp up inspections of the farms and the bunkhouses workers live in.
Ford said the province may have to consider making changes to the communal nature of the bunkhouses in the future, but it would be hard to take that action during the pandemic.
“It’s something we can put on the table,” he said. “Can we do it in within a month or so? I just don’t think that’s reality. But what we can do, we can go in and test frequently. I think it’s critical that we do.”
With files from The Canadian Press