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Premier Doug Ford tours Windsor Essex as farm outbreak fight continues

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is pictured as he visits a bakery in Toronto THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The top doctor for Ontario’s Windsor-Essex region said Thursday progress is being made to bring COVID-19 outbreaks on local farms under control, as Premier Doug Ford toured the hard hit region.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed said approximately 150 workers in the region have active cases of the virus, down from over 300 weeks earlier.

The health unit reported that another 11 agri-food workers tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

“I think that’s definitely an improvement from where we were,” he said. “But the challenge is the unique nature of the industry … and the congregate living setting that we are talking about.”

Farms in Windsor-Essex have been hit hard by COVID-19, with five currently in outbreak. Two local workers have died from the illness.

Migrant workers work and live in close quarters, which advocates say makes physical distancing hard and has led to the rapid spread of the virus on farms.

The farm outbreaks delayed the economic reopening in the Windsor-Essex region, particularly in the towns of Leamington and Kingsville, which were the final two communities to reach Stage 2 last week. The region be one of 10 left behind as the rest of the province advances to Stage 3 on Friday.

Ford toured the area Thursday morning, stopping in to get his first haircut in months at a barbershop in Leamington, Ont. He was scheduled to meet with some local politicians and farmers.

Ahmed said he was not scheduled to meet with the premier.

“I think it’s a good thing for our region that he is coming here and gets to see some of the challenges first-hand,” he said of the premier.

Late last week, local leaders called on the provincial government or federal government to take charge of the response to the farm outbreaks.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said there have been instances where “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” and having a lead agency would help prevent that.

Local leaders sent a formal request to the province last week asking it to take charge of the response, but Ford wouldn’t say if the province had yet responded to the request.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province’s chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, has been co-ordinating the province’s efforts to contain the outbreaks.

“We’re not seeing the numbers of total positives that we saw several weeks ago,” Elliott said. “But the testing is still continuing.”

The Ontario government deployed staff from its emergency management agency earlier this month to help arrange care and housing for farm workers who tested positive for the virus.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized the premier for focusing too much of his time on photo ops in the region instead of providing leadership on the farm outbreak issue.

“It’s really tone deaf to the problems that folks are facing,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable that the government isn’t stepping up on the co-ordination piece that they’re being asked to do.”