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January 17, 2022

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the acting medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) stunned the horticultural industry on January 11 with an order barring entry to temporary foreign workers (TFWs) into Essex County until February 1, 2022.  Three days later, he rescinded the order.


The unprecedented situation was resolved with local, provincial and federal leaders in the healthcare, agricultural and social service communities to establish the level of support necessary to meet health requirements for TFWs who are isolating or in recovery from COVID-19. However, the disruption to greenhouse and nursery growers would have been considerable given the timing of the crucial planting season.


“This was a complete surprise,” says Aaron Coristine, manager of science, regulatory affairs and government relations, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, based in Leamington. “The damages would have been extensive.”


About 900 TFWs were already in the area, with several hundred more workers expected to land by end of January through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the Ag Stream. It’s unknown to what degree flight arrangements were cancelled. Many of these workers would have been in transit from remote regions to Mexico City or Kingston, Jamaica. 


In his rationale for announcing the original order on January 11, Dr. Nesathurai cited a “significant number of outbreaks at agricultural enterprises” and that the community had “limited capacity to manage the surge occurring with the introduction of the Omicron variant.” He was referring to lack of resources to house and isolate workers who might test positive. 


The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers contend that Dr. Nesathurai’s predictions were based on modelling many times greater than what was being experienced in the county. Of the 46 positive COVID cases amongst TFWs, most are double vaccinated. And many have their booster shots. The fact that COVID-19 positive workers and their close contacts are not allowed to self-isolate on farms adds further stress and in Coristine’s words “unnecessarily burdens the region’s capacity to support workers through utilization of the Isolation and Recovery Centre.” 


Urgent meetings were undertaken with the Mexican consulate, Premier Doug Ford, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore as well as the Ontario minister of agriculture Lisa Thompson and her colleagues in health and labour. At the federal level, the minister of agriculture’s office was involved as well as officials from Employment and Social Development Canada, the agency that manages the SAWP. Local MPs assisted in the discussions. 


Although the immediate crisis is resolved, the agricultural sector continues to look to engage with local health authorities on how to support workers in the future.



Source: Windsor-Essex County Health Unit January 11 and 14, 2022/Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers January 14, 2022

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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 17 January 2022