Montérégie farm struggles to contain COVID outbreak among migrant workers

A farm in Quebec's Montérégie region is working with public health authorities there to contain an outbreak of COVID-19, after at least 18 of 49 temporary foreign workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda says officials are following the situation closely

Vegpro International temporary foreign workers and other employees remained on the job Thursday despite the outbreak. To date, 18 workers have tested positive for COVID-19. They are now in isolation. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

A farm in Quebec's Montérégie region is working with public health authorities there to contain an outbreak of COVID-19, after at least 18 of 49 temporary foreign workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

The infected workers, most of whom come from Guatemala and Mexico, are all in isolation.

Vegpro International, one of Canada's largest vegetable producers, said the first case was detected on May 28.

After public health officials contacted the company about the positive finding, Vegpro launched an immediate investigation to determine who may have been in contact with the infected worker, the company said in a statement Thursday.

Public health officials then helped carry out tests on all farm workers by May 30, Vegpro said.

Well-being of workers paramount: Vegpro

"From the start of the pandemic, our main concern as an employer was the well-being of our more than 1,000 employees," Vegpro said.

It said the foreign workers' positive test result was complicated "because these workers live together in collective housing."

"We arel relieved everyone is doing well right now," said the company, describing its collaboration with public health authorities as "excellent."

However, the farm's production has been slowed by the work stoppage, and the company is waiting for more workers to arrive from abroad, it said.

It was still unclear on Wednesday how the first worker caught COVID-19, but it didn't take long for the disease to spread among those living in the shared space. (Radio-Canada)

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, said health officials will be following the situation closely.

"It's a very important issue," he said, noting that protocols are already in place on farms with migrant workers to try to curb the spread of the virus.

Shared living space contributes to transmission

Guidelines from Quebec's workplace health and safety board stipulate that workers must keep two metres away from one another at all times, even when they live together.

The company says the first infected worker lived in a housing complex in Sherrington, Que., with other workers sharing common areas.

Given the risk, Gerry Van Winden, president and CEO of Vegpro International, hired a private nurse and began reorganizing his farm to create hot, neutral and cold zones, much like hospitals and long-term care homes.

The task was made more challenging by the fact that the workers do not speak French, he said.

"We must pay special attention to this type of housing where workers live, to avoid major cases of contamination, because there's no doubt the places are at risk," Van Winden said.

The temporary foriegn workers were housed in buildings with common living space. (Radio-Canada)

The nurse he hired, Geneviève Frenette, said she's able to get by in Spanish as she visits the isolated workers every day to follow up. Her presence helps reassure the workers, she said.

Public health said a mobile unit will be sent to the site on Thursday to test 15 other potentially infected workers.

Jocelyn St-Denis, the executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers' Association, said COVID-19 is spreading on farms just as it is in the rest of Quebec. Everybody has to do their part to prevent the spread of the disease, he said.

"These are the risks of living in a society," he said. "Am I surprised? No. Because foreign workers that come here are like every local worker. If they go to town, if they go out, they face the same risks as you and I face on a daily basis."

Temporary worker shortage

Between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign workers usually come to Canada to work in the agriculture and food sector each year, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. 

So far this year, about 30,000 have arrived, leaving Quebec with about half of its usual workers.

Earlier this spring, Premier François Legault urged Quebecers who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis to look for employment on farms.

In April, Quebec put forward a $42.6-million package to support the province's agricultural sector, which was expected to have a shortfall of 8,000 temporary foreign workers this season due to the pandemic.

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC's Sudha Krishnan

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