WINDSOR, ONT. -- Mayors and health care leaders from Windsor-Essex are calling on upper levels of government to take a bigger leadership role to escalate COVID-19 testing efforts in the agri-food sector.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens was joined by Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald, Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos, County Warden Gary McNamara, Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj and Erie Shore HealthCare chief of staff, Ross Moncur for the panel discussion Friday morning.

The collective call for action was loud and clear: more testing and more provincial and federal leadership is required to gain control of the situation.

“We need proper leadership on the ground that can coordinate a proper response and bring everyone together as quickly as possible,” said Dilkens. 

Dilkens says local leaders are doing their best but admits it’s not as coordinated as it should be — and the province has an obligation to take the lead.

“The federal government has the resources, the province has the responsibility and the cities have the problem,” Dilkens says.  “At the end of the day, we all have a shared goal. And we want to solve this situation, but we shouldn’t be tripping over each other trying to undertake efforts that would be better delivered if there was one lead organization with ultimate responsibility.”

To date, roughly 800 workers in the agri-food sector have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic and two have died.

But officials believe the number of positive cases would be a lot higher if the frequency and rate of testing was increased to all farms, with only one-third of workers tested so far, according to Windsor Regional Hospital CEO, David Musyj.

“Once it starts and it gets into a farm, it multiplies in those vulnerable settings,” Musyj notes.

A two-person team from Emergency Management Ontario was called in on July 1 to help provide a level of coordination in the testing and isolation process of agri-food workers, but everyone on the panel discussion agreed that the team needs to take a bigger leadership role.

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald believes incentives need to be put in place to enhance testing efforts.

“I understand their fear,  but there needs to be either some kind of carrot, or a stick, to say you have to have your farm tested,” says MacDonald, adding it should be a condition of employment.

“It’s a prickly issue and no one seems to want to take that on. But someone needs to,” MacDonald says. “If we don’t get somebody to do this, we’ll just keep going round in circles, on and on and on, and we’ll never get there.”

MacDonald says the federal government should also have taken a bigger role from the beginning when flags were raised early on in the pandemic. She says farms could ultimately lose some money if workers test positive and there aren’t enough workers to process crops — but says human lives trump profits

“This is now about humanity this isn’t about business,” MacDonald says. “We need to take hold of this, we need to grab this bull by the horns, and we need to get through the testing as soon as we can so that we get our numbers to zero.”

In response, Premier Doug Ford listed off all the federal and provincial agencies assisting in the region, including Ontario Health, the ministry, the Emergency Response Ontario team and federal inspectors. But the premier didn’t comment on who is taking the lead — only that it’s all hands on deck.

“I’ll be visiting some folks, along with workers and farmers and local businesses,” said Ford, hinting at a visit to the region sometime next week. “They’re incredible people. I’m always going to stand behind them. I’ll always have their backs in the Essex area, and I just can’t wait to get down there to say hello to everyone.”

County Warden Gary McNamara, who is also the chair of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, says the region is running out of time to get a handle on the crisis.

“They have the wherewithal to bring in all the additional resources that we need once we’ve exhausted everything at the bottom end,” says McNamara. “And we’re getting pretty close to that now.”