Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit will investigate farm worker death

A Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit official says she believes the health unit's rules around quarantines for seasonal farm staff help stop the virus from spreading.

Fausto Ramirez Plazas died on May 20 after contracting COVID-19

An official with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit said it will investigate the death of Fausto Ramirez Plazas, who died on May 20. (Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit/Facebook)

An official with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit says the health unit is investigating the death of a migrant worker who had COVID-19.

Dr. Kate Bishop-Williams also said she believes the region's rules around quarantines for seasonal farm staff continue to stop the virus from spreading.

The health unit has released very limited information about Fausto Ramirez Plazas, who died on May 20, saying only that he had been hospitalized and that his death was "attributed" to COVID-19.

During a media update on Tuesday, officials remained tight-lipped when asked about where Ramirez Plazas could have contracted the virus, despite undergoing repeated tests and a 14-day quarantine as part of his arrival in Canada.

Bishop-Williams, an epidemiologist with the health unit, said the unit takes the tests and quarantine "very seriously" and that they have protected workers in both counties. But she declined to say more about Ramirez Plazas, citing privacy.

The health unit will "investigate fully" all deaths linked to COVID-19, including those of migrant workers, she added.

Advocates say Ramirez Plazas had been coming to Canada to work at Procyk Farms in Wilsonville, Ont. since 2017.

In order to leave Mexico, he would have had to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding his flight. Workers undergo a second test again when their planes land at Toronto's Pearson airport, then begin a 14-day quarantine, with yet another test 10 days in, said Luisa Ortiz, an organizer with Migrant Workers Alliance For Change.

"These workers are dying in quarantine. It's supposed to protect them and this quarantine is mandated by the federal government, so this means that workers are dying on the federal government's watch," she told CBC News on Friday.

Employment and Social Development Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Haldimand and Norfolk are also home to a own specific set of rules for farms and farm workers.

A section 22 order first issued by then-medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai in March 2020 barred more than three workers from quarantining in the same bunkhouse, regardless of floor space. Any remaining workers who weren't able to find space on the farm had to spend their self-isolation in hotel rooms.

Migrant workers undergo repeated COVID-19 tests and a mandatory 14-day quarantine when travelling to Canadian farms. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Additional rules were added this year, limiting the number of workers a farmer could transport from the airport to three at a time, rather than by the bus load.

The migrant worker alliance said Ramirez Plazas was quarantining with two other workers who also tested positive for COVID-19.

Christine Wheeler, who acts as human resources manager for Procyk Farms, said staff there also do not know when Ramirez Plazas would have come into contact with the virus.

"It was from Point A to point B," she said of the tests and regulations. "We have no idea."

Ramirez Plazas arrived in Canada on April 22 after undergoing two tests and was again tested on May 1, she said, adding his results came back positive on May 4.

Wheeler confirmed the two other people Ramirez Plazas had been isolating with also contracted the virus, but said all the other workers who came on the same flight tested negative.

'50-50' for shots at airport

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is offering vaccines to workers arriving at Pearson, though it's unclear whether Ramirez Plazas had received a shot.

Sarah Page, who's heading up the local vaccine rollout in Haldimand-Norfolk, said Tuesday that despite that program, the counties are seeing more workers get vaccinated when they arrive on farms, as opposed to at the airport.

"We believe that it's about 50-50 at the airport, from the numbers we're receiving from most of our farms, and we've had uptake as high as 70 or 80 per cent of the workers down here on the farms," she said.

Page pointed to landing at Pearson after a "long travel day" and being "bombarded" with information about vaccines as possible reason for some hesitancy.

Local clinics, on the other hand, are lower pressure, move at a slower pace and involve translators who can answer any questions the workers might have, she said.

It's not clear where Ramirez Plazas could have been exposed to the virus, given the federal and regional regulations in place.

"Those processes have protected the health of a number of workers across the two counties, and in this case I wouldn't be able to share much more than that," said Bishop-Williams.

"What I can share is that while those rules are particularly stringent and may cause difficulties or may bring up tensions in the community, they certainly do have the ability to limit the spread of COVID-19 among workers and community members."

New medical officer keeps COVID-19 order

Farmers have argued against Haldimand-Norfolk's rules, saying they're more heavy-handed than any other region in the country and will severely impact the 2021 growing season.

They've even taken to area roadways in tractors to demonstrate against them.

Farmers, migrant workers speak out against strict COVID-19 restrictions

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2 months ago
Farmers and migrant workers in Ontario's Norfolk County say COVID-19 restrictions imposed on them are unreasonably harsh and harmful to workers — and they say Canadians' produce prices will rise as a result. 5:22

Nesathurai has since left the health unit, but the area's acting medical officer of health, Dr. Alex Hukowich, said Tuesday that he intends to re-issue the order in his name.

"I don't plan on making any changes to that order right now," he said. "We'll just see what happens over the next few weeks."