Fernlea workers test positive for COVID-19

Fernlea Flowers of Courtland is working with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit to control an outbreak of COVID-19 among its workers. – Monte Sonnenberg photo Monte Sonnenberg / Simcoe Reformer

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COURTLAND – One of the largest and oldest greenhouse operations in Ontario is getting by with a skeleton crew following confirmation this weekend of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Fernlea Flowers on Highway 3 near Courtland brought the outbreak to the attention of the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit last week. Most of its 175 employees have agreed to a 14-day quarantine, during which they cannot work.

A total of seven employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. Fernlea spokesperson Fiona Longtin said the positive employees are asymptomatic, meaning they feel normal and are displaying no symptoms.

“It’s a fact that people can carry the virus without showing symptoms,” Longtin said Monday. “It was our decision to bring in the health unit.”

Health-unit reporting on an outbreak like this is complicated because some of the employees reside outside Haldimand and Norfolk. A health unit news release mentioned this weekend that the outbreak is under investigation along with “houses of worship.”

Matt Terry, a spokesperson for the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit, would not go into further detail about this reference when asked about it Monday. He said medical officials have to balance the community’s right to updates with an individual’s right to keep their medical information private.

Terry confirmed that multiple “places of worship” are at issue here, and that the four-case increase in Norfolk and Haldimand’s aggregate caseload Sunday to Monday – 451 to 455 – is related to Fernlea. Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health, has expressed reservations about sharing details of an outbreak that might identify the parties involved.

For its part, the Brant County Health Unit confirmed Monday that one of the positive cases identified at Fernlea resides in Brant County.

Fernlea Flowers was founded in 1939. It specializes in the production of flowers and bedding plants. Its facility east of Courtland covers 40 acres.

Longtin said Fernlea has been proactive in its monitoring of COVID-19 since March. Fernlea established a task force which came up with a specific daily routine in response to it. This includes working from home where possible, temperature checks, washrooms that are sanitized every four hours, employees taking breaks in their vehicles rather than a lunch room, and spreading work over extra shifts to facilitate social distancing.

Longtin added Fernlea should be able to manage its current inventory through a two-week holding pattern.

“We’re working with what we have,” she said. “We were initially forced to throw some cuttings away because we didn’t know what was coming, which is sad. You never want to throw anything out.”

— with files from Vincent Ball