Ontario farm effectively shut down as province sees 302 new COVID-19 cases in 2 days

Ontario reported a combined total 302 new cases of COVID-19 over the last two days, with 149 of those yesterday and 153 today, the Ministry of Health says. The province did not release any COVID-19 data on Canada Day, and thus today's update includes figures from both Wednesday and today.

Meanwhile, Ford calls on feds to loosen restrictions on funding for provinces to reopen economies

Ontario's network of labs processed about 50,000 COVID-19 test samples over the last two days. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Migrant workers at an Ontario farm struggling with a major COVID-19 outbreak "hid" to avoid getting tested when health officials visited recently, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday.

Ford, who refused to name the business, said fears among temporary foreign workers that they would not be paid, or sent back to their home countries if they tested positive, are hindering efforts to address the outbreak at the farm in the Windsor-Essex region.

So far, 191 workers have been infected with COVID-19 on that farm.

The premier said only three or four workers at the farm co-operated with health officials who showed up to do more testing.

"All the workers went and hid," he said. "That's why my emphasis to the workers is nothing's going to happen. We're here, Ontario is here, to help you."

Farms in Windsor-Essex have been hard-hit by COVID-19, with outbreaks currently at four of them. Hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive, and three have died.

Ford stressed Thursday that workers will have access to health care, safe places to isolate, and be eligible for some of the province's sick pay benefits.

Sources confirm Nature Fresh farm effectively shut down

On Wednesday, the medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex ordered a work stoppage at the farm after the rash of positive tests.

Asked to name the farm Thursday, Ford said, "I won't throw hard-working farmers under the bus."

Dr. Wajid Ahmed issued a mandatory order for the farm to ensure employees were isolated and stopped working as a result of the outbreak. No contract workers are permitted to work on the site either under the order.

The premier said Thursday he worries the fact that farms could face shut-downs will only dissuade farmers from wanting to cooperate with public health officials.

However, a migrant worker advocate and the national representative of one of the country's largest food and commercial workers unions have both confirmed that Nature Fresh in Leamington, Ont. is the farm currently under strict orders by the region's health unit. 

Under those orders, employees are directed to isolate and stop working until further notice. 

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group, and Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, both told CBC News that they have spoken with employees from Nature Fresh.

They say those workers have informed them that the Leamington facility is the same farm that saw 191 confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend and that was effectively shut down on Wednesday by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU).

"My understanding is that [it's] Nature Fresh," Santiago said. 

CBC News attempted to contact Peter Quiring, president and CEO of Nature Fresh by phone, but Quiring hung up after a reporter identified himself. Quiring didn't pick up when another reporter called. 

Public health units in Haldimand-Norfolk and Chatham-Kent have named farms where outbreaks have occurred.

'Cut us a cheque'

Meanwhile, Ford is calling for the federal government to loosen its restrictions on funding for the provinces when it comes to reopening as Ontario saw 302 cases of the novel coronavirus in the last two days.

"Cut us a cheque, give us the flexibility," Ford said during his daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday.

"They don't know where every single province needs the money... We're not going to go hog-wild, we'll work within the parameters."

The Ontario government also announced $150 million in new funding to improve homeless shelters and long-term care housing.

The new money is meant to allow municipalities and Indigenous community partners to renovate shelters and new facilities to make physical distancing easier amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as pay for longer-term solutions around homelessness.

The $150 million brings the province's Social Services Relief fund to $350 million and is part of a package for municipalities to cope with COVID-19. The City of Toronto alone expects to lose more than $1.5 billion due to the pandemic.

Contact tracing app delayed

Of the province's 302 new cases, 149 pertained to Wednesday's total and 153 made up Thursday's total, the Ministry of Health says.

The province did not release any COVID-19 data on Canada Day, and thus today's update includes figures from both days.

The newly confirmed cases bring the total in Ontario since the outbreak began to 35,370. Nearly 87 per cent of those are now resolved. An additional 386 were marked resolved over the two-day period covered in today's report.

Further, 29 of Ontario's 34 public health units reported five or fewer confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus today. Twenty-three of those reported no new cases at all, according to Minister of Health Christine Elliott. 

The province's network of community, commercial and hospital labs processed about 50,000 COVID-19 test samples over the last two days. If testing levels stay where they are, Ontario could hit a cumulative total of 1.5 million tests completed by the end of the week.

Moreover, Ontario's official COVID-19 death toll grew by eight, up to 2,680. A CBC News count based on data provided directly by public health units puts the real number of dead at 2,728.

Meanwhile, a new mobile app meant to help with contact tracing of COVID-19 cases won't roll out across Ontario today as planned.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health says the province is still working with the federal government and the app is expected to launch soon.

The province will be the first to use the COVID Alert app, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said it should be ready for downloading in the rest of the country later this summer.

Premier Doug Ford says the app is meant to enhance the province's contact tracing strategy.

He's previously said it could play a key role in helping contain the spread of COVID-19 as more businesses reopen their doors.

The voluntary app will use anonymized Bluetooth signals between smartphones to keep track of a user's contacts over two-week intervals. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

The Bluetooth-based app will be voluntary, and will notify users based on a number of criteria, including if they were within two metres of a person who tests positive for the virus and if that contact took place over an extended period of time.

The province didn't give a new date for the app's launch.

Leadership change at Public Health Ontario

Meanwhile, the one-time president and CEO of Public Health Ontario, Dr. Peter Donnelly, is stepping down from his role after five and a half years, the agency said this afternoon. 

Donnelly has been on medical leave since early April, as the COVID-19 outbreak was ramping up in the province. Public Health Ontario said he will not be returning to the position. 

"Having experienced cardiac symptoms over a number of weeks, it is now clear that it is important for me to return to the United Kingdom where all of my family are based," Donnelly said in a news release.

"It has been a privilege to lead PHO over the last five and a half years. I am very grateful to have had that opportunity and I wish the organization and its hard-working and talented staff every success for the future."

In the release, the PHO board said Donnelly played a critical part in the agency's early response to the novel coronavirus.

Colleen Geiger, who has been serving as acting president and CEO since Donnelly left on medical leave, will continue in the role for the time being. 

With files from CBC's Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press

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