How a COVID-19 outbreak at a party wreaked havoc on farms in Chaudière-Appalaches

Work on a family farm in Chaudière-Appalaches has effectively come to a standstill since several members of the staff contracted COVID-19. 

Nine people at Pellerat farm were forced to self-isolate, and six of them tested positive. 

“Our guard was down, and we were caught unexpectedly,” said Pellerat farm co-owner Lysanne Pelletier. “We never thought we’d become a statistic.”

The director of public health in the Lower Saint Lawrence warned earlier this month that dozens of young people had become infected with COVID-19 at a house party in La Pocatière, and there was a strong chance many had carried the virus to other regions when they went to work on farms. 

About 100 people attended the party in late August, many of them from the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire, which requires students to work on farms as part of their studies.  

Among the partygoers were a member of Pelletier’s family and a friend, both of whom work at Pellerat. 

COVID-19 outbreaks have affected several farms in the Chaudière-Appalaches region after dozens of young people became infected at a party in the Lower Saint Lawrence last month. (Daniel Coulombe/Radio-Canada )

Pelletier, her sister, one of her employees, her sister-in-law, her mother, and her two-year-old nephew all later tested positive. 

She said although she’s been following the virus’ spread across the province, the family members were caught off guard, because Chaudière-Appalaches and the Lower Saint Lawrence had seen few cases since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In the last two weeks, the Lower Saint Lawrence has been bumped up to yellow, for “early warning,” in the province’s colour-coded alert system, and Chaudière-Appalaches has been increased to orange, for “moderate alert.”

The majority of the cases have been linked to community spread from the La Pocatière party. 

On the farm, Pelletier said they’ve had to make adjustments. 

“We’re not just COVID-19-positive,” Pelletier said. “We’re also sick, so we’ve had to reduce our hours a bit.” 

She said it’s put more pressure on the business to have to limit the comings and goings of mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and veterinarians. 

The farmer said she doesn’t expect to be back on track until mid-October. 

Jonathan Fortin works with dozens of farms in Chaudière-Appalaches, and says the outbreaks in the region are a concern for farmers. (Submitted by Jonathan Fortin)

Meanwhile, Jonathan Fortin, a business owner who does contract work with dozens of farms in the region, said the increase in cases has also affected his work. 

“It’s upsetting the entire work cycle, and it’s an added stress for everyone,” he said, adding it’s been the main topic of conversation among farmers.

Fortin’s two employees are both off sick with COVID-19 after coming into contact with people who attended the La Pocatière party.

He said it’s complicated for himself, and for farmers, to lose employees overnight, because they’re difficult to replace on short notice, especially during harvest season. 

“I’m on my own trying to do it all,” he said. “I am trying to find additional employees until mine return, but it’s not easy.”

Concerns from the Quebec milk producers

Chaudière-Appalaches has the highest number of dairy farms in the province. 

The head of the Quebec milk producers, Daniel Gobeil, said he’s working hard to prevent the outbreaks on farms from affecting the supply chain. 

Gobeil said it’s important to protect processors and transporters to avoid a break in the supply chain.

“Clearly, for us, it would be a catastrophe,” he said. “There are factories in Quebec where there may be 20 to 25 milk transporters who are coming into contact with each other every day.”

He said at this point, consumers are not likely to feel the effects of the outbreaks, because there is biosecurity in place and the supply chain remains intact. Still, at the farm level, it’s been challenging.  

The head of the Quebec milk producers, Daniel Gobeil, said he’s working hard to prevent the outbreaks on farms from affecting the supply chain. (Radio-Canada)

Contact tracing can be a headache for public health

The head of the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire, Sylvain Gingras, said although there are no students doing official placements right now, there’s “no point in putting one’s head in the sand.” 

He said the institution is aware several students have part-time jobs on farms, and many work on their family farms, like in Pelletier’s case. 

Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist with Quebec’s public health institute said contact tracing after a virus ‘superspreading’ event — when a cluster of people become infected following a single event — is very challenging. 

“You have to get to the contacts of all these cases to see who they’ve been in contact with,” he said. “And the greater the superspreading event, the greater the number of people you would have to contact, so this takes lots of time.”

He said because of COVID-19’s relatively long incubation period, it can take several days to realize a superspreading event has happened, as was the case with the party in La Pocatière.

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