A glimmer of hope, and a flashing red warning light…

Nely Rodriguez of the CIW speaks to a national TV news reporter while posting educational flyers on COVID-19 prevention in Immokalee last week. She is standing next to one of seven hand-washing stations installed around the farmworker community as part of an innovative partnership for prevention with Lipman Family Farms, a Fair Food Program participating grower, and local health and emergency management agencies.

Targeted COVID-19 testing on the way for Immokalee?…

CBS Reporter Jim DeFede: “Have you had a chance to look at the issues surrounding Immokalee?”

Jared Moskowitz, Director, Florida Emergency Management: “I’ve been talking to the Emergency Management director of Collier County… I  can tell you that on my list of places to expand (testing) over the next week or two, Immokalee is on that list.”

But… the clock is ticking, and the tragic experience of Smithfield meatpacking workers in South Dakota provides a stark cautionary tale for what happens when time runs out…

Let’s begin with the good news — or, better put, the possibly good news — out of Tallahassee.  It seems that the voices of the nearly 30,000 people who have signed the petition calling for testing, protective equipment, and a field hospital for the Immokalee farmworker community are being heard by those in a position to make a difference here in Florida, as this exchange yesterday between veteran CBS reporter Jim DeFede in Miami and State Director of Emergency Management in Tallahassee, Jared Moskowitz, would indicate:

Director Moskowitz’s intention was echoed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, albeit in broader terms, in his own press briefing yesterday, as well.  From the Ft. Myers News-Press:

… Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted efforts to increase testing, with additional mobile testing sites being set up around the state, National Guard “strike forces” going into nursing homes and the availability of quick tests.

The National Guard strike teams were so successful they have been expanded, DeSantis said this week. The state has 10 teams of four soldiers each testing people in nursing homes, where there is concern over direct-care workers who are asymptomatic but may have been exposed.

Those strike teams took samples from 500 people on Tuesday, DeSantis said: “We want to expand that as widely as we can. It is very, very important we focus resources on those people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.”… READ MORE >>

Make no mistake, this shift in strategy was the direct result of the pressure on officials to do more to protect Florida’s most vulnerable communities, from seniors in assisted living facilities to farmworkers in Immokalee.  Your calls, signatures, and support on social media have raised the profile of the looming crisis in Immokalee to a level that can no longer be ignored, and now testing, one of the key requests in our letter to the governor, is squarely on the agenda.  

But now is no time to relax:  In the coming days, it will be crucial to ensure that state – and local – officials both deliver, promptly, on their promise of testing and provide the space and resources for the isolation of, and care for, those who test positive.

“The need is immediate and response must be in proportion to the identified threat”…

While yesterday’s news provided a glimmer of hope in the face of a potential public health disaster, it is crucial to note that we are far from out of the woods just yet.  The state’s approach to testing – a slow roll-out of testing resources, protected behind a high wall of logistics and criteria that people must meet to even “qualify” for a test, an approach tailored to preserving scarce testing resources more than identifying potential hotspots – has kept vulnerable communities like Immokalee in the dark about the extent of the contagion, while leaving many people infected with the virus in circulation for far too long, as they go about the arduous process of meeting the strict criteria and waiting for overdue test results (or, worse yet, don’t even try to get tested). 

The experience of another high-risk community – senior citizens – illustrates the systemic problems with the state’s current testing approach.  Again from the Ft. Myers News-Press:

… On April 14, Martin Goetz, CEO of River Garden Senior Services, a senior living community and nursing home in Jacksonville, wrote DeSantis, Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, and Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, to demand the immediate testing of nursing home staff and residents in Florida. 

While grateful for the Florida National Guard “strike teams,” Goetz wrote: “Telling facilities that testing will begin in another week is unacceptable. The need is immediate and response must be in proportion to the identified threat.

“To date, all we have accomplished is chasing where the virus has been, not where it is headed,” Goetz wrote…

Goetz is not alone in his frustration.  Public health experts also take serious issue with the state’s testing strategy:

… Experts worry that the testing protocols are not broad enough to contain the spread of COVID-19. Testing only people with symptoms excludes those who might be spreading the virus even though they don’t appear sick, they say.

“Florida should be changing its testing strategy,” said Dr. Camara Jones, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and past president of the American Public Health Association. “You shouldn’t wait for people to be symptomatic. You have to sample those people who are not symptomatic.”

Jones said that by testing only sick people, “we are documenting the course but not changing it.” 

That change in course would have resulted in fewer deaths had it been implemented from the start, she said… read more

That approach – identifying at-risk communities and undertaking pro-active, targeted testing to arrive at samples large enough to both give experts a clearer picture of the risk and identify individuals carrying the virus but not yet symptomatic – is what the farmworker community in Immokalee has been calling for since last month, when the enormity of the threat from COVID-19 became self-evident.  

Work shoes outside a one-room apartment in Immokalee offer mute testimony to the severely overcrowded conditions typical of most farmworker housing as the coronavirus crisis looms.

Farmworker communities like Immokalee are, as we have said elsewhere, superconductors for the spread of the virus.  Overcrowded housing, cramped transportation, unsanitary working conditions, and generational poverty all render social distancing and self-isolation impossible for workers in Immokalee, making the community the ideal environment for unbridled contagion.  Only by getting out ahead of the virus can you cut off its path from trailer to trailer, from crew to crew.  Chasing it with a handful of tests for those few workers able to complete an arduous obstacle course of criteria and logistical challenges will never work, and will only lead to disaster, both for the community and for the country as a whole that depends on the Immokalee community for putting fresh fruits and vegetables on tables across America.

“By then, the virus was out of control”…

Sadly, what began as a hypothesis – the perfectly logical prediction that introducing a virus as easily communicable as COVID-19 into a community as cramped and overcrowded as Immokalee would result in an extremely steep curve of contagion and a devastating impact on the farmworker community – is now a proven truth, backed by facts coming to light today in the immigrant worker community of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, home to a major Smithfield meatpacking plant.  The story of the Smithfield plant should serve as a flashing red warning light for Florida’s governor and public health authorities:

What does the outbreak in Sioux Falls have in common with the situation in Immokalee?  Just about everything.  A large, low-wage, immigrant worker community?  Check.  Essential workers required to keep working and not shelter at home?  Check.  Crowded conditions and lack of protective gear at work?  Check.  A lax posture by authorities toward the worker community that flowed downward from the governor’s office?  Check.

The result?  Today, according to the New York Times, Sioux Falls is home to “the country’s biggest Coronavirus hotspot… with more than 640 cases linked to the plant.”  The outbreak has caused Smithfield to indefinitely close the plant, which provided nearly 5% of the country’s entire supply of pork.  In the wake of similar closings of meatpacking plants around the country, there is talk of a possible shortage of meat if the virus is not controlled soon.

The story of neglect, both at the workplace and at the state capitol, has been chronicled by the New York Times and the Washington Post.  From The Times:

… Kooper Caraway, president of the Sioux Falls chapter of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the leaders began sounding alarm bells more than a month ago that the plant, because of its crowded conditions and lack of protective gear, could become a coronavirus hot spot.

“Management just kind of dragged their feet, kicked the can down the road,” Mr. Caraway said. “They just decided it was more profitable to hold off on instituting any of these changes until they absolutely had to. But by then, the virus was out of control.”… READ MORE >>

And from The Post:

As governors across the country fell into line in recent weeks, South Dakota’s top elected leader stood firm: There would be no statewide order to stay home.

Such edicts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Kristi L. Noem said disparagingly, reflected a “herd mentality.” It was up to individuals — not government — to decide whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”

And besides, the first-term Republican told reporters at a briefing this month, “South Dakota is not New York City.”…

… “A shelter-in-place order is needed now. It is needed today,” said Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, whose city is at the center of South Dakota’s outbreak and who has had to improvise with voluntary recommendations in the absence of statewide action.

But the governor continued to resist. Instead, she used a media briefing Monday to announce trials of a drug that President Trump has repeatedly touted as a potential breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence.

“It’s an exciting day,” she boasted, repeatedly citing her conversations with presidential son-in-law Jared KushnerREAD MORE >>

The similarities between Sioux Falls and Immokalee are unsettling.  The only significant difference between the two essential, immigrant worker communities, however, is that we know the extent of the outbreak in Sioux Falls, because people there have now been tested.  The testing wasn’t done on time, and it wasn’t part of a coordinated strategy to stem the spread of the virus, but at least once the outbreak became clear, authorities there were able to test large numbers of workers and their families and get a measure of the contagion.  

In a town with a workforce of 3,700, over 600 workers and family members in Sioux Falls have tested positive, meaning the total number of tests is far more than 600.  In Immokalee, on the other hand, as of yesterday there have been a total of just over 85 tests done, with 22 people testing positive (a notably high positive rate, but a notably low total number of tests).  There are, conservatively, 20,000 workers in Immokalee (with a November to May total population of 32,000).  Without more testing, we have absolutely no idea what the scope of the problem is in Immokalee.  If we wait another week or two, however, the virus may well be out of control.  

The testing in Immokalee promised by Mr. Moskowitz must start now, and it must be aggressive.  To quote Mr. Goetz of River Garden Senior Services, “The need is immediate and response must be in proportion to the identified threat.”

Essential workers are not expendable human beings…

There is simply no other way to put it: The fact that life and death decisions for hard working people – people that we have designated as essential workers and require to risk their lives to keep food on our tables – are being made through the lens of rigid and divisive political ideology is obscene.  

Workers in the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls and workers in the fields of Immokalee have been ignored, exploited, and marginalized for generations, both by their employers and by the political leaders for whom they are local residents.  That tragic reality has been laid bare by this brutal pandemic.  The deadly COVID virus thrives in environments where grinding poverty limits workers’ control over their own lives; where a thirst for profits leaves workers exposed through sub-standard living and working conditions; where political ideologies that view immigrants and low-wage workers as lesser – preferably invisible – members of society dictate derision and dismissal of their concerns, rather than care and consideration.  

We have seen, now, the consequences of those conditions in Sioux Falls, and it is exactly what we feared when news of this virus first broke.  We cannot let those same consequences repeat themselves in Immokalee.  We still have time to stave them off, if we – state and local officials, in partnership with the worker community and willing growers, and with the support of allies like you – act now.  

We’ll close this post with a story about a worker who lost her life in yet another meatpacking plant where, like in Smithfield, the virus has spread unchecked.  In Georgia, Annie Grant, a 55-year-old poultry worker, lost her life to the virus after working at a Tyson Foods plant.  If we could tell every story, we would.  Maybe then our elected officials and local authorities would finally understand the importance of their lives, and the depth of their loss:

Annie Grant, 55, had been feverish for two nights. Worried about the coronavirus outbreak, her adult children had begged her to stay home rather than return to the frigid poultry plant in Georgia where she had been on the packing line for nearly 15 years.

But on the third day she was ill, they got a text from their mother. “They told me I had to come back to work,” it said.

Ms. Grant ended up returning home, and died in a hospital on Thursday morning after fighting for her life on a ventilator for more than a week. Two other workers at the Tyson Foods poultry plant where she worked in Camilla, Ga., have also died in recent days.

Take action to support our call for immediate measures to protect the farmworker community in Immokalee today. Thank you.