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Canada's top health official to seek details of Ontario COVID-19 farm worker guidelines

Kelsey Johnson and Allison Martell
FILE PHOTO: Migrant workers wear masks and practice social distancing in Portage la Prairie

By Kelsey Johnson and Allison Martell

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's top public health official said on Thursday she plans to seek more information from Ontario about the province's plan to allow some COVID-19 positive people with no symptoms to return to their jobs, a risky policy according to workers' advocates and some doctors.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, issued guidelines on Wednesday allowing some migrant farm workers back to work as farms battle outbreaks that have killed three people and infected hundreds more.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said protocols that separate COVID-19 positive and negative workers must be stringent, and workers' health must be considered.

"People can begin to have symptoms anytime during that incubation period and potentially can get sick fairly fast," she said. "You need to make sure that you screen them for symptoms and enable them to stop working if they're not feeling well."

Canadian farmers rely on some 60,000 temporary foreign workers predominantly from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many live in crowded bunkhouses where the virus can spread quickly.

Sudeshna Nambiar, chief operating officer of Lakeside Produce, a Leamington, Ontario greenhouse operation, welcomed the new policy. She said each employee is responsible for 23 rows in the greenhouse, allowing for ample distancing.

Lakeside had 13 infections among workers in the spring, but all have recovered.

"This is the new normal. This is how we have to operate, with more hygiene and social distancing," she said.

Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of British Columbia, said the virus is likely to spread if workers return.

On Wednesday, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture said workers will not be forced to work.

"This isn't a community that has a lot of flexibility in their lives," said Murthy. "Most individuals are not in a place where they can make a free and fair choice."


(Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by David Gregorio)