35 agricultural workers in two days test positive for COVID-19 in Windsor-Essex

Farm workers are behind a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex this week.

Cases reported Monday and Tuesday account for uptick in daily figures

Silhouette of a person picking a plant from the ground.
Over the last two days, 35 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19. The health unit said some are local people and some are migrant workers but would not disclose where the people work. (CBC)

Farm workers are behind a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex this week. 

On Monday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said 33 of the 36 new cases reported were among workers in the agricultural sector — the highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported in a day since mid-April. On Tuesday, the health unit reported another two workers had tested positive. 

Medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said the cases are from different facilities in Essex County but would not identify which farms, greenhouses or other businesses were involved.

"These are private businesses that we are talking about. If the risk to the community would be there, I will be the first one to report that, to disclose that, because there would be some public health action attached to it," said Ahmed, explaining the decision not to identify the workplaces by name. 

"[If] there is any risk that ... this facility is not doing the work that they should, in terms of protecting their employees, or if the case numbers are significant enough that would warrant us to consider shutting down the facility, we will do that."

It's unclear where these workers are or what their jobs entail, but Ahmed said there is currently no evidence that suggests COVID-19 can be transmitted through the handling of food, but rather only through direct close contact — within 2 metres — with someone who is ill.

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Some of the workers are from abroad and some are locals, said Ahmed. He said common living areas are a factor in the spread of the coronavirus.

Ahmed said the health unit has been educating employers and employees about following public health guidance and making sure facilities are operating in a way that allows for physical distancing.

"As workers come together, just like gathering in the community, this increases risk of COVID-19," said Ahmed.

Increased testing available

In an interview with CBC News Monday, before her departure as CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare was announced suddenly on Tuesday, Janice Dawson said monitoring the disease in agricultural workers is something the Leamington hospital has been doing "from day one" of the pandemic.

"We have almost 7,000 migrant workers in our area and they are a very important, valuable part of our community," she said. "So we want to make sure that we're able to monitor the numbers coming in and support the agricultural industry as much as we possibly can."

WATCH | Dawson talks about increased testing and what's happening at the hospital:

Erie Shores HealthCare increase COVID-19 testing

4 years ago
Duration 4:58
Janice Dawson, CEO of the Leamington hospital talks about testing and what's next during this pandemic.

Dawson said there was a slight increase in the number of migrant workers coming in to be tested lately. 

"We haven't got all those results back yet so we don't know what the true result is looking like but we've been working with public health," she said. "We've been talking to our Mayor [Hilda] MacDonald at the municipality and certainly have been engaging in those conversations to stay out front and take that proactive approach particularly with this population."

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said she is concerned about the rise in COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers because of the increased risk of community spread. 

"It's always a concern because people interact," she said. 

MacDonald would like to see increased testing in operations that have outbreaks, but said there are probably not enough resources to do it. She said at a municipal level, there is not much that can be done and that the health unit and province take the lead on COVID-19. 


"The test that we have right now is diagnostic and used to make clinical decisions," said Ahmed, explaining that a positive test result isn't necessarily helpful if workers are not following other precautions and self-isolating to prevent the spread. He said doing a test one day, then waiting four or five days for results could mean others will be infected in the meantime.

Ahmed said the type of testing now available does not lend itself to mass testing of the 8,000 to 10,000 migrant workers in the region. He said what's needed is called "point-of-care testing," where results are known immediately.

"That would give you an estimate on that specific day. So for example, if I'm an essential worker, I'm coming to my workplace, and ... I am working with other people and may not be able to maintain physical distancing. If my point-of-care test is negative, then I'm good to work with my colleagues," said Ahmed. "If it's a positive, then I can be sent back home, and then that way we can control it. But if I'm doing the test today and then if I'm getting the results three or four days after, by that time, I've already infected other people."

Essex MPP Taras Natyshak wants to see migrant farm workers better protected against COVID-19. He said the federal and provincial governments may have to look at housing conditions in the long-term. 

COVID-19 testing has expanded in the region, but medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said current testing would not help limit the spread of the coronavirus among agricultural workers. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We have to ensure that this is something we keep mindful of when we figure out how to best deal with pandemics in the future," he said.  

"It's all a learning experience right now, and something that I think our health unit is aware of and is monitoring dutifully."

Four workers at Highline Mushrooms in Kingsville had tested positive for COVID-19 in April. However, Aaron Hamer, president of Highline Mushrooms, said all employees had recovered and were back at work. 

The health unit issued a public health notice on May 12 along with Lakeside Produce, to report that 13 workers there had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of April. Three were migrant workers and 10 were local workers. 

At the time the statement was released, 10 of the 13 cases had recovered, and all were close contacts of each other. 

With files from Kaitie Fraser, Jason Viau, Chris Ensing