WINDSOR, ONT. -- Collaboration of 16 different agencies and community partners has helped bring the vaccine coverage of the migrant worker population above 60 per cent, according to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.

It’s a “night and day” comparison to where the sector was at this time last year, with 2,700 workers catching COVID-19. Fifty different farms experienced outbreaks during the 2020 growing season and two workers in this region died of COVID-19 related illnesses.

“It was certainly very scary for everyone,” remarked Monica Champagne, the project coordinator for the Windsor-Essex Local Immigration Partnership, of the various partners leading the vaccination effort at 176 area farms.

Through a variety of pop-up clinics and on-site vaccinations, the group has been able to deliver 5,000 vaccines. Dr. Wajid Ahmed says another 1,000 were vaccinated upon entry to Canada.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 temporary foreign workers descend upon Windsor-Essex during any given growing season.

Champagne says there was a sense of urgency to get it right this year to avoid a repeat of 2020’s crisis.

“We need to do this and we need to do it as quick as possible for as many people as possible because there’s so much on the line,” she said.

The Workplace Wellness for Agri-food workers Task Force — 16 community partners — worked toward a common goal — vaccine education and promotion.

“That really helped to remove any of these barriers and misinformation they may have,” said Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the region’s medical officer of health.

Joseph Sbrocchi, who represents the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says growers and the various partners stepped up to ensure everyone who wanted a shot could get one.

“Their care and well-being has always been at the heart of our drive, number one, because it’s the right thing, period. Number two, because it’s the right business thing, period,” said Sbrocchi.

But he said it wasn’t without hurdles — like language barriers and vaccine hesitancy.

The task force doubled down on education and interpretation to help provide confidence for wary workers.

“All of these people came together and we figured out how to help each other,” Sbrocchi said.

Martin Varela was on the ground at the various pop-up clinics held in Leamington. He believes the collaboration between dozens of organizations was key to getting high vaccine coverage numbers.

“I was pretty surprised. All the people I saw there and talked to them, they were happy to take the vaccination,” Varella said.

Efforts are ongoing to get more first and second doses administered to keep workers safe, to keep farms open and to ensure food security for the region.

“I’m really happy to see that rate and I truly hope that we are able to give them the second dose and get them the protection that they need,” said Dr. Ahmed.