The agricultural community of Immokalee is quickly becoming an epicenter of COVID-19 cases in Florida, with the Florida Department of Health’s dashboard showing a large cluster of cases with nearly 900 recorded since April. And as those workers move north to work the summer fields in other parts of the country, advocacy groups worry they will take the virus with them.

Farmworkers living and working in cramped conditions are especially vulnerable to exposure and infection from the virus, advocacy groups say, much like workers in the meatpacking industry which experienced hots spots in May. And workers’ groups say that state officials and growers were slow to respond to the threat, and did not move until fairly recently to ramp up testing.

“The Department of Health has promised that Immokalee will get testing Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for multiple weeks in a row and we hope they follow through,” says Nova Friedman, an administrator for the Alliance for Fair Food, which advocates for farmworkers. “The tomato harvest is wrapping up and we are hitting an important moment as these communities are starting to clear out. The virus will continue spreading, traveling up the coast.”

Immokalee, on the eastern side of wealthy Collier County, is the country’s winter tomato capital. During the winter/early spring season it is home to about 25,000 people, 43% of whom live below the poverty line on an income below $26,000 for a family of four.

Latino and Haitian migrant workers board early-morning school buses or hop into the roll-up backs of U-Haul trailers to reach the fields. They work side by side hand-harvesting mostly round green tomatoes that are later gassed with ethylene to ripen them. At the end of the day, workers hop back in those buses and trucks and head home to retrofitted trailer parks often owned by the growers, with between 6 and 16 workers bedding down in bunk beds and mattresses on the floor in single-wide trailers meant to be one-bedroom homes.

As of June 10, the Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection reported 899 positive cases in the Immokalee Zip code, out of roughly 2,500 tests conducted in the rural town. That is a 36% positive rate, far higher than the current 5.58% positive rate for those tested in Florida overall, and much higher than wealthier areas of Collier County.

Farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., labor in close quarters through the covid-19 pandemic. Farmworkers cannot afford to get sick by going to work, and they cannot afford to lose their jobs by not working. Coalition of Immokalee Workers

On the other side of the county, in Naples’ 34102 Zip code, the 15th wealthiest Zip code in the country with a population of 15,544, there have been only 76 cases of covid-19. In Collier County as a whole, state officials reported a total of 2,230 cases as of June 10, including 250 hospitalizations and 57 deaths. But authorities are unable to say how many of these deaths are farmworkers.

Collier County’s Department of Health, assisted by an 11-member Doctors Without Borders team, this month stepped up testing among migrant worker communities, ahead of an annual migration of Immokalee farmworkers northward to work the fields in Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia or Michigan.

But Kristine Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Collier County, acknowledged officials have had problems in ramping up testing, and contacting workers with their test results – in part because many workers don’t have primary health-care providers. Others are undocumented and fearful of giving out contact details, despite assurances from county officials they won’t be deported.

“That’s something we have struggled with,” Hollingsworth says. “We have been able to reach 90% of those tested, provided they give us an accurate address, phone number and name. We are not looking to deport anyone or ascertain their legal status. We are just here to do testing.”

Gloria Carrera, 43, a tomato picker for Pacific Tomato Growers in Immokalee for the last 20 years, said in the past week she has seen many of her friends and co-workers leave for farms farther north.

Although there is no work in Immokalee in the summer, she’s not moving north with her fellow migrant farmworkers.

“I believe the virus is real and I’m worried about it. There are people who believe it’s real and others who say that it’s a lie and are going about daily life,” she said by phone via a translator.

Originally from Santa Cruz Bay in Oaxaca, Mexico, she said she is staying put, trying to stay healthy and to protect the health of her two kids, 9 and 16. But it’s not easy and she’s scared. She lives in a trailer with nine people total, some of them friends she has known for a while, some of them strangers.

“My job is to make sure my children are safe.”

Carrera has not been tested herself. She says she has just not wanted to do it.

Seth Holmes, a physician and anthropologist at University of California at Berkeley, who has been administering tests as a volunteer since the beginning of April, said the Florida farmworkers are more vulnerable than those in California, where most farmworkers set up their own housing and usually have their own cars. In Immokalee, social distancing is nearly impossible at work or at home.

“I’ve heard of farms giving masks, but mostly not,” Holmes said. “Workers have to get their own masks, so maybe three out of 20 people have masks on and there’s pressure not to wear them – it’s not a ‘tough’ thing to do.”

Oscar Otzoy, a former farmworker who is now an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says testing agencies aren’t asking contact-tracing questions or telling workers how or how long to self-isolate, when they call to deliver the results of positive tests.

“After that clinic took place in May and people received the calls with positive results, they were told to just stay home,” Otzoy said through a translator. “In terms of what growers have been offering workers, there hasn’t been a whole lot of help to those workers who tested positive. That’s something we’re starting to see as more and more people get sick, people are not being given a lot of information and are being left to fend for themselves.”

It’s unclear how many farmworkers have had the coronavirus, or how many have died of it: In Orange County, where Orlando is, the medical examiner releases name, age, occupation and where the deceased lived; in Collier County, the medical examiner releases only where a person died. And because Immokalee doesn’t have its own hospital, very sick farmworkers are hospitalized in Naples or neighboring communities. The state also does not report data on how many people have recovered from the disease.

Hollingsworth says that if a worker can’t safely isolate at home, the health department has 100 rooms where people can stay free of charge, with separate bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchenettes, and everyone is given a move-in kit of sheets, blankets, hand sanitizer, groceries and regular meals. Still, she says, there’s a powerful incentive for many growers to demand workers stay on the job, as well as for workers to keep working even after a positive diagnosis.

“We can’t pay them or supplement their income,” she says. “We’re trying to tackle those hurdles, but we know people want to provide for their families, often sending money back to support people where they are from.”

The accommodations are also near Naples, and Immokalee farmworkers don’t often have cars.

“I’ve only heard of one person from Immokalee given a room there,” Holmes says. “It would be ideal to have people from Immokalee isolate in Immokalee somewhere.”

Sandra Murillo, media relations director for the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, which has been assisting the county testing since May, says that language barriers, transportation problems and long workdays have stymied some workers from getting tested. She says many can’t afford to take a day off to visit a clinic. Nonetheless, she says, there is strong interest from community members to expand mass testing at pop-up sites or mobile clinics.

“There’s no way of knowing how many people have left having received a positive test,” says Otzoy, “or who don’t know that they have the virus.”

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