TORONTO — The Windsor-Essex area now has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in Ontario, local health officials said Friday as Premier Doug Ford mulled ordering mandatory testing for farm workers in a bid to contain the spread of the surging virus.
Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said new case rates in the southwestern Ontario region passed Toronto and Peel this week with 484 cases per 100,000 people.
Ahmed said the spike in diagnoses in the community and on local farms may be attributable in part to loosened public health restrictions that took effect when the region entered Stage 2 of the provincial economic recovery plan weeks ago.
The cases are "stretching" local hospital capacity in Windsor and Leamington, Ont., he added.
"It is definitely stressful (and) concerning and we've been dealing with this for quite some time now," he said. "My message to the community is ... unless we all work together, unless we all do our part, it has the potential to get worse, even worse than what we're seeing right now."
Windsor-Essex reported 53 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, attributing 43 of them to agri-food workers.
Hundreds of migrant workers in the region have tested positive for the virus over the past few months and two have died.
On Thursday, Ontario's chief medical officer of health said on-farm testing efforts had recently been "paused" after only 19 of 176 such facilities in the region participated.
That revelation drew an angry rebuke from Ford, who reversed his previous opposition to the idea of mandatory testing and conceded it may be the only way to properly trace and contain the virus.
"Guys, I'm just going to cut to the chase here," he told farmers during his daily news conference. "If you have migrant workers, get them tested. Bottom line. Full stop. That's it. We can't keep playing this cat and mouse game."
Ford said he's reached the point of considering implementing mandatory tests, adding the government is currently seeking legal advice on the issue.
Ahmed said he will not rule out mandatory testing on farms if he thinks the measure would protect the community.
"In the worst case scenario, if we are in that situation because of the risk, that option will be available for me to use," he said.
Windsor Regional Hospital, the largest health-care facility in the area, said Friday it expected to reach 100 per cent capacity by day's end.
It currently has nine patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and another 51 patients with suspected cases of the virus.
That has forced it to reduce the number of elective surgeries because of the shortage of bed capacity.
Chief Executive Officer David Musyj said widespread testing is needed in the agri-food sector, likening the need to similar measures implemented in the long-term care sector months ago.
"Some (nursing homes) didn't want hospitals involved and some put up a little fight," he said. "It was a matter of the government saying 'Yes, you need to allow these organizations in to help you. ... my point is, let's replicate that, it worked."
He is concerned the community still doesn't know the extent of the COVID-19 infection rates on local farms. Because on-farm testing has stalled, local positive tests are being uncovered by the health unit as it does proactive outreach to farms after a single worker tests positive.
"It's a limited amount of swabbing that's taking place," he said.
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, which represents 118 farmers in the region, said that 46 of its members have engaged in testing either on-farm or at one of the assessment centres.
"There were a number of farms booked for on-farm testing when the initiative was paused so we expect uptake once that is available again," spokeswoman Justine Taylor said.
A spokesman for advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers says mandatory testing will lead to "criminalization and heightened surveillance" of the workers.
"The problem isn't the workers, it's the employers and the power they wield over the lives of migrant farm workers on a daily basis," Chris Ramsaroop said in a statement. "It's telling that the province won't hold the rich and powerful to account but will develop policy tools to infringe on the charter rights of racialized communities."
Local political leaders in Windsor-Essex have formally requested the provincial government take charge of the farm outbreak response, a request that has so far gone unanswered.
NDP legislator Taras Natyshak, who represents a riding in Windsor-Essex, said he can't understand why the province hasn't responded to the community request.
"If COVID rates are a barometer of leadership, the premier has failed miserably," he said. "Despite our loudest appeals, the premier has refused to take a co-ordinated approach and to deliver the resources that we know are available through the public service."
Overall, Ontario reported 195 new cases of COVID-19 provincewide on Friday, as well as three new deaths.
Hamilton and Niagara are among some regions of Ontario that have moved to Stage 3 reopening on Friday.
The easing of measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 gives the green light for gyms, theatres and bars to reopen in regions cleared for the next stage of economic recovery.
Ford said that Windsor-Essex, Toronto, and Peel Region will have to wait until Wednesday for news on whether they can proceed to Stage 3.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 24, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press