TORONTO — Ontario will start offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrant farm workers arriving at Toronto’s international airport through a pilot project this weekend, The Canadian Press has learned.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says the pilot will run early Saturday morning, offering shots to 200 workers arriving on a flight from Mexico.
Officials from the ministries of health and agriculture, health-care practitioners and representatives from the Mexican consulate will be at Pearson International Airport to meet the group, offering doses after the workers pass through customs.
The arriving workers will be offered doses of the Moderna vaccine, which will be administered in a screened-off area after they take a mandatory COVID-19 test upon arriving.
The government says it will follow up with farms to administer the second dose through the local public health unit where the individuals work.
The program will become permanent after implementing lessons learned from Saturday’s initial pilot, with plans to offer shots to more arriving workers next week.
The ministry is also preparing a package with information about Ontario’s vaccine plan to be distributed to the workers in their home countries before they arrive in Canada.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province’s associate medical officer of health, publicly proposed the airport vaccination plan last month and hinted this week that a pilot could be days away.
She said it’s important for the province to offer vaccines to the vulnerable group of workers, who were affected by mass virus outbreaks on farms in 2020.
Last year, more than 1,780 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and three died from the virus.
Approximately 20,000 temporary foreign workers are employed on Ontario farms each year, and many have already arrived for the 2021 growing season.
The plan to offer vaccines at the airport has sparked concern among worker advocates, who have said the setup could cause confusion, unnecessary stress and not allow enough time for informed consent.
A working group of health experts sent a letter to public health units late last month raising concerns about workers not having timely access to information on vaccines.
It said workers involved in early vaccination efforts in Canada had raised concerns about lack of opportunities to discuss the process with health professionals and indicated some people had not received a consent form.
The Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group recommended guidelines for migrant worker vaccination efforts, including consultation with a health professional, advanced notice, language assistance and guaranteed freedom from reprisal.
Some health units have already started offering shots to migrant workers in Ontario and others are in the process of developing vaccinations plans.
Ontario is currently in the second phase of its vaccine rollout, which prioritizes temporary migrant workers because they live in congregate settings considered high-risk for COVID-19 spread, and cannot work from home.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press