40 workers at Elgin County orchard test positive for COVID-19

Public health officials are waiting for more test results after 40 workers on one Elgin County farm tested positive for COVID-19 this week. The outbreak is linked to close living quarters.

All of those infected live in congregate living conditions, such a bunk houses

40 workers at Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Vienna, Ont., have tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Martin's Family Fruit Farm)

An apple orchard in Elgin County is the site of a large COVID-19 outbreak, mainly affecting migrant workers, where 40 people have tested positive for the virus. 

The case spread has been linked by public health officials to close living conditions, because the workers at Martin Family Fruit Farms lived in bunkhouses, where it's impossible to maintain physical distance. 

"We were notified of a positive test on Friday and then from there, we acted on that and proceeded to have everyone who works at our orchards, spread over two properties, tested," owner Kevin Martin told CBC News from the company's headquarters in Waterloo. 

The orchards are in the small town of Vienna, south of Tillsonburg. 

Southwestern Public Health officials, which oversee Elgin County where the outbreak occurred, say they tested 157 people for the virus after one person sought medical treatment on Friday. 

They don't know who caught the virus first, or from where, said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Joyce Locke. 

"We are conducting contact tracing for all of the positive cases to identify spread beyond the workplace," she said at a Tuesday media briefing. 

Workers from Trinidad and Jamaica

The majority of the workers who have tested positive were on the farm through the temporary seasonal worker program, Martin told CBC News. They were from Trinidad and Jamaica. 

Foreign workers at Martin's Family Fruit Farm come mainly from Trinidad and Jamaica. (images72/Shutterstock)

"Some of our workers are new, but the majority are workers that come year over year," he said. "We certainly have some that have been coming to our farm for 20 years. Ultimately, we're concerned about everyone's health and safety at this time. The initial case seems to be recovering and we're monitoring everyone."

The migrant workers are in mandatory self-isolation in local hotel rooms, Martin said. Any locals who tested positive are isolating at their own homes, he added. 

The workers are being visited daily by public health officials and given meals, medicine and necessary items such as pyjamas, Locke said. 

'Lapse in compliance'

Southwestern Public Health said the number of cases at the orchard suggest there were lapses in compliance. Officials said no charges have been laid to date, but the situation is under investigation. 

"We are working with the farm operator to identify the breakdown in the process and to mitigate further risk to their employees," explained Locke.

In July, Locke put in place 22 separate measures that govern agricultural employers that employ migrant farm workers, Temporary Foreign Workers, local workers, or workers from temporary help agencies. The measures include everything from physical distancing practices, guidelines for accommodations, screening practices, and keeping accurate and updated contact information.

"The risk to the community is considered low as all cases are in isolation," Locke said. 

"An on-farm inspection has taken place and public health officials are working with the farm operator to ensure all appropriate measures are in place to contain the spread of the virus and prevent future outbreak events."

Martin said his farm followed health and safety protocols and is working with public health officials. 

There is no risk that the coronavirus transferred onto the produce handled by the affected employees. 

Vienna is on the shores of Lake Erie.

Nearby Aylmer has recently declared a state of emergency after residents there planned a second anti-mask rally. A previous rally on Oct. 24 attracted a large crowd of people opposed to COVID-19 restrictions.