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COVID-19 hits farm workers

APRIL 1, 2020byPeter Mitham

Bylands Nurseries Ltd. in West Kelowna is the epicentre of the first large community outbreak of COVID-19 in BC.

The outbreak is linked to a group of seasonal workers who arrived in BC on March 12, according to the Interior Health Authority. The workers arrived prior to the March 16 announcement closing Canada’s borders to foreign nationals effective March 18.

A health order was placed on the farm on March 27, and the affected workers are confined to on-site housing until further notice.

The health authority disclosed details of the cases in a statement on March 31, and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry discussed the findings during her daily briefing on the health emergency the same day.

The Interior Health Authority did not disclose specific numbers in its release, but CBC reports that 14 foreign workers tested positive. An additional 63 foreign workers are in isolation awaiting test results, while 12 local employees are also in isolation.

Shortly after the results were announced, BC agriculture minister Lana Popham took to Facebook.

“Given that there can be more than 10,000 seasonal farm workers on BC farms and food processing locations, these results are not unexpected,” she said, noting that Ottawa sets the ground rules under which workers can enter the country.

However, on March 20 the federal government allowed the agrifood sector to hire foreign workers despite the travel ban, providing employers ensure workers are virus-free prior to entering Canada and self-isolate for 14 days after arrival. The arrangement aims to prevent community spread in BC. Businesses that don’t comply risk of losing their right to hire foreign workers in future years.

To support on-farm measures, AgSafeBC recently made COVID-19 workplace safety materials available on its website. These include prevention procedures, an exposure control plan and employer protocols for a pandemic. Safety notices for workers and signage is also available.

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