TORONTO — Migrant workers at an Ontario farm struggling with a major COVID-19 outbreak “hid” to avoid getting tested when health officials visited recently, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday, refusing to name the business.

Ford said fears among temporary foreign workers that they would not be paid or sent back to their home countries if they tested positive for the virus are hindering efforts to address the outbreak at the farm in the Windsor-Essex region that has seen 191 workers infected with COVID-19.

The premier said only three or four workers at the farm co-operated with health officials who showed up to do more testing. 

“All the workers went and hid,” he said. “That’s why my emphasis to the workers is nothing’s going to happen. We’re here, Ontario is here, to help you.”

Farms in Windsor-Essex have been hard-hit by COVID-19 with four farms currently in outbreak. Hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive for the virus, and three have died.

Ford stressed Thursday that workers will have access to health care, safe places to isolate, and be eligible for some of the province’s sick pay benefits.

On Wednesday, the medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex ordered a work stoppage at the unidentified local farm after the rash of positive tests.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed issued a mandatory order for the farm to ensure employees were isolated and stopped working as a result of the outbreak. No contract workers are permitted to work on the site either under the order.

The health unit’s CEO, Theresa Marentette, said the farm outbreak represents a quarter of the region’s total COVID-19 cases among agri-food workers.

“It’s a substantial amount of people,” she said of the number workers with the virus. “So this order was put in place to protect the workers and prevent further spread on the farm.”

While Ford has repeatedly praised Ahmed in recent weeks, he appeared to contradict him Thursday, saying the work stoppage will not inspire local farmers to participate in efforts to combat the virus.

“Do you think that encourages other farmers to co-operate when all of a sudden, they see one of their friends get their farm shut down like that?” Ford said. 

The health unit and Ford have declined to name the farm where the outbreak has occurred, with the premier saying he doesn’t want to blame the grower for the situation.

“When I call people out, it’s because they’re trying to gouge someone,” he said. “They’re trying to take advantage of the public. These poor farmers, they’re not trying to take advantage of anyone. They’re beside themselves. And I’m not about to throw a hard-working farmer underneath the bus for nothing that he’s done wrong.”

Public health units in Haldimand-Norfolk and Chatham-Kent have named farms were outbreaks have occurred.

NDP legislator Taras Natyshak, who represents a riding in Essex County, said migrant workers were participating in on-farm testing for COVID-19, disputing Ford’s statements.

″…those workers have been supportive because they understand how serious it is to their own health and to their colleagues,” he said.

Natyshak said Ford was also wrong when it comes to promises of provincial sick pay eligibility for the workers, noting that current pandemic measures only protect migrant worker jobs. He said workers need assurances they won’t lose money if they test positive for the virus.

On Thursday, the Canadian Red Cross confirmed it was working with the province and municipal officials in Windsor-Essex to help the community deal with the outbreaks.

Meanwhile, a new mobile app meant to help with contact tracing of COVID-19 cases was not rolled out across Ontario on Thursday as planned.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said the province was still working with the federal government and the app was expected to launch soon.

The province will be the first to use the COVID Alert app, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said it should be ready for downloading in the rest of the country later this summer.

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Ford has previously said the app could play a key role in helping contain the spread of COVID-19 as more businesses reopen their doors.

Using the app would be voluntary, and the app would notify users based on a number of criteria, including if they were within two metres of a person who tests positive for the virus and if that contact took place over an extended period of time.

“Well, it’s not delayed on our side,” Ford said Thursday. “We’re ready to go. I know the feds want to bring it right across the country. They’re working on that.”

Ontario reported 153 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and four new deaths related to the novel coronavirus.

The total number of cases now stands at 35,370, which includes 30,730 marked as resolved and 2,680 deaths.

The province reported 204 resolved cases over the previous day, and the numbers of people in intensive care and using ventilators both dropped. More than 24,300 tests were completed over the previous 24 hours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2020.

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