Contract workers from Windsor-Essex brought COVID-19 to Chatham-Kent workplace

Dr. David Colby, CK Medical Officer of Health. (Photo courtesy of the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit)

The latest COVID-19 outbreak at workplace in Chatham-Kent can be traced back to infected temporary contract workers from Windsor-Essex.

It’s also believed that workplace outbreak is largely responsible for the positive COVID-19 cases that are popping up in Chatham-Kent schools, according to the latest update from the municipality’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Colby.

He said as of Thursday morning, 12 of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Chatham-Kent are from a specific workplace in the municipality, which has been identified by the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit, but not yet publicly named by them because it is not a facility that is open to the general public. Four more confirmed cases at the workplace involve employees who are from outside of Chatham-Kent.

Dr. Colby said a number of employees have also tested negative, but there are approximately 60 tests from employees there that are still pending results. He said in total, there are approximately 200 employees at the workplace.

During a briefing with local media Thursday morning, Dr. Colby confirmed that all but one of the positive COVID-19 cases that were recently announced at schools in Chatham-Kent can be traced back to that same workplace outbreak in the municipality.

“These are not community cases, they are all related to workplace outbreaks — basically family and friends,” said Dr. Colby, noting that there is still no evidence of the virus spreading within the school environment.

Deb Crawford, the director of education with the St. Clair Catholic District School Board, said one cohort of students from Ursuline College Chatham is in isolation — that includes 21 students and two staff members.

At the Lambton Kent District School Board, Director of Education John Howitt said the number of students and staff affected by positive cases is “in flux” but estimated at there are over 100 students and approximately 10-12 staff members who have been affected.

In response to the latest workplace outbreak, and in order to prevent similar situations in the future, Dr. Colby said he is considering issuing a class order that would restrict contracted workers from coming into Chatham-Kent from other jurisdictions.

He noted Thursday that the process of hiring contracted workers from outside of a given area is “not illegal, but it is highly discouraged in all of the guidelines.”

However, he also said he still has to do a lot of thinking about how to word a class order, so that it does not have consequences that could unintentionally harm a local business’ operations.

Back in May, Greenhill Produce in Kent Bridge also dealt with a workplace outbreak that could be traced back to infected contract workers from Windsor-Essex.

“[The class order] has got to be carefully worded because what if someone has a sophisticated piece of equipment that someone has to come from another jurisdiction to do it? I wouldn’t want my order to shut down a whole plant that isn’t having any problems,” said Dr. Colby, adding he has not drawn up anything specific yet. “I’ve got to think this through very, very carefully, but when we are dealing with a potentially large outbreak like Greenhill was, that could be prevented by such a thing, it is very tempting to consider such an action.”

Dr. Colby said there is “no doubt” in his mind that the virus was spread between employees within the workplace environment, noting that he has not issued any specific orders to the company yet, but the investigation is still in the early stages, so he expects to have more to say on that later.

In the meantime, Dr. Colby also clarified that while this outbreak and the earlier outbreak at Greenhill Produce in Kent Bridge can both be traced back to Windsor-Essex, he is not blaming the public health unit there for not taking proper precautions.

“Their health unit is doing a fantastic job, and I really mean that with all of my heart,” said Dr. Colby. “But [Windsor-Essex] is the source of this.”

The Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit reported five new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the number of active cases up to 28. However, Wednesday’s numbers were included in Thursday’s update as the Health Unit’s offices were closed for Remembrance Day.