Outbreaks in the agricultural sector in southern Ontario continue to drive up new cases of COVID-19 in the province.
Windsor-Essex reported 98 new cases on Sunday and 88 on Monday, most of them from a single farm.
Staff from the nearby Middlesex-London public health unit have joined Windsor-Essex’s team to manage the crisis, sending in nurse practitioners to farms to manage confirmed cases and contact tracing.
Premier Doug Ford said Monday that federal employees were inspecting the bunkhouses of the temporary foreign workers and that the federal government was picking up the tab for the hotels and motels where workers are isolating.
The province has also ramped up testing.
“We’re going to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to resolve these cases as quickly as possible,” said Ford.
Nearly 40 per cent of workers at Windsor-Essex farm test positive
Mass testing at a Windsor-Essex farm over the weekend resulted in the area’s highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
About 175 cases were found in two days. The farm has about 450 workers.
The Windsor-Essex area is home to upward of 10,000 temporary farm workers. Some live in bunkhouses on farms, but others live in the community and workers can move from farm to farm.
Asked Monday whether it was becoming a public health crisis, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, associate medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, said that it was too early to tell.
Although the virus was sweeping through one farm, workers on others had tested negative and on some farms, there were a limited numbers of positive cases, he said.
“As of now, what we are dealing with is unprecedented and nobody was expecting this high number,” said Ahmed. “I think as we continue to work with all these cases and contacts we will have a better understanding of what the ongoing risk to this population is.”
Ahmed declined to identify the farm.
The majority of workers who tested positive didn’t report having symptoms, but Ahmed said it would take interviews by nurse practitioners during case management to determine if that is truly the case.
The province recently eased the rules surrounding migrant workers who test positive, allowing them to continue working if they are asymptomatic so that farms don’t fear losing large numbers of employees to isolation.
However Ahmed said the latest workers to test positive were in isolation.
Susan Bondy, an epidemiologist with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said that ideally, people should come forward to be tested on their own.
However, community supports are necessary when it comes to a workforce that is particularly vulnerable.
Contact tracers should “detect, test, isolate and support,” she said, noting migrant workers particularly “need reassurance that they can remain with an income, remain with food and adequate housing.”
That is a challenge, “because in many cases accommodations, really good access to primary care (and) access to social services is certainly lower in the agricultural workforce than other workforces.”
Toronto and Peel drive up Ontario numbers
Collectively, the number of new cases coming out of the GTA is still the largest in the province. The GTA reported 85 new cases Monday, while Toronto Public Health reported 62 new cases — though after removing 60 duplicate cases from their tally, the city’s number actually fell by 10.
The rest of Ontario reported 147 cases Monday.
According to Peel Public Health, of the 280 cases reported between June 19 and 25, 80 per cent were related to an outbreak or close contact with a confirmed case. Only one per cent are linked to travel outside of Ontario.
“I’m disappointed that it’s not lower,” said Bondy. “For those health units … I would like to see it come right down and experience a period of thinking we can actually eliminate it from the communities.”
Some regions are still catching up on testing, she said. “You have people who are asymptomatic and you have people who haven’t yet been tested who probably are connected to an outbreak. So we’re still doing catch up on local areas that have just undetected virus in the community.”
Bondy said different trends will be driving daily case totals. “What accounts for 50 (cases) one week is a different phenomenon from what accounts for the 50 the next week,” she said.
Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto, told the Star it’s “reassuring” that case totals haven’t yet skyrocketed with the reopening of shopping malls and salons. “We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks, (but) we haven’t seen a trend going up — at least in the GTA. I’m reassured by this.”
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That said, Banerji cautioned against reading too deeply into daily totals. “I think that all of our numbers and the emphasis on the numbers are completely inaccurate,” she explained, noting that tests could produce false negatives which skew the numbers.
Additionally, the possibility of asymptomatic people going undetected means the true number is much higher. “The number of people who have had COVID … I would estimate is at least five to 10 times higher” than what we know of, Banerji said.
Ontario’s struggles while the Atlantic Provinces bubble
Ontario was the only province to report more than 200 cases on Monday.
Quebec, with a total of more than 55,000 cases, the most of any province, reported 72 new cases of the virus on Monday, down from 77 the day before.
Cases there have declined steadily since the second week of May, mostly due to decreases in Greater Montreal, which is where the majority of cases have been located.
British Columbia gave its first update in three days on Monday, reporting 26 new cases as of Friday and bringing their total to 2,904. Alberta reported 39 cases on Sunday.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba have both reported daily cases in the single digits recently.
Meanwhile, residents of Canada’s eastern provinces will be able to travel freely as of July 3 between New Brunswick, PEI, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador thanks to an agreement by their premiers that eliminates a requirement to self-isolate for 14 days.
New Brunswick’s borders are still closed to the rest of the country unless you’re travelling to the province because of work, health care, you own property or you’re visiting family, in which case the isolation requirement is still in place.
PEI and Newfoundland also remain closed to non-essential travellers.
Nova Scotia never closed it’s borders, but visitors to the province from outside the Atlantic Provinces are still required to self-isolate.
What is going on in the U.S.?
South of the border, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.
Despite a brief downturn in the country’s daily totals, case positivity is again peaking. On Sunday, the country saw nearly 40,000 cases in one day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
“The United States is having a terrible escalation” of the rate of positive infections, said Banerji, pointing to Florida and California as states that are continuing to break daily records. “I don’t think we can let our guard down with this virus.”
Only two states — Connecticut and Rhode Island — are reporting a decline in daily case numbers. In Minnesota, for example, people in their 20s have become the largest group of confirmed cases of the virus — a spike that appears to be tied to reopened bars and public spaces.
Meanwhile, the state of Florida is seeing a staggering rise in positive results, reporting 43,964 new cases the week of June 21 to 28. This represents over 31 per cent of the state’s total case numbers. While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has chalked this rise up to increased testing, U.S. epidemiologists say the increases are real and the result of continued spread.
In response to continued case growth that appears to follow eased lockdown restrictions in late May, many states are pausing or restricting reopening plans. Miami-Dade County has announced it is closing its beaches and banning gatherings over 50 people.
Experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate more than 20 million U.S. citizens have been infected with COVID-19 — far beyond the official figure of 2.5 million total cases.