Collier County Health Department announces new plans for ongoing, free, community-wide COVID-19 testing in Immokalee starting this weekend! WBBH News for Fort Myers, Cape Coral & Naples, Florida

In response to dangerous spike of COVID-19 cases in Immokalee, Collier County Department of Health announces plans to partner with Doctors Without Borders and local clinic to provide urgently-needed testing!… 

Dr. Seth Holmes on NBC2: “Florida is one of the main agricultural producers for the whole country, so if we can protect our farmworkers, we’re also protecting our food system.

At the beginning of May, nearly two months into the coronavirus pandemic, there were only 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Immokalee.  Today, less than a month later, there are more than ten times that number — nearly 500 confirmed cases — surpassing the reported numbers in some of the state’s largest coastal cities.

Throughout this past week, headlines broke across the region warning, “Immokalee quickly becoming the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in Southwest Florida.”  The extensive local news coverage has helped turn a spotlight on the severe shortage of testing resources in Florida’s largest farmworker community.  That shortage thwarted the ability of the Department of Health and Doctors Without Borders, who set up shop in Immokalee in early May to support with vital aid efforts, to assess the real extent of the spread throughout the community, prompting Doctors Without Borders to launch an urgent public call for more testing to help “quell the outbreak.”

In an excellent report by NBC2 reporter Briana Fernandez titled “Immokalee residents suffer from lack of coronavirus testing, poor living conditions,” Dr. Seth Holmes, a public health professor at the University of California Berkeley and an expert in community health, shares his experiences on the ground as a health volunteer in Immokalee over the past month and makes critical recommendations for protecting the farmworker community’s health and well-being:

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. – Dr. Seth Holmes traveled to Immokalee from the University of California Berkeley when testing first became available almost a month ago. While stationed in Immokalee, he noticed poor living conditions and a lack of testing. 

“In this area, there’s a lot of people lined up to get buses together, maybe 15-30 people in a bus on their way to work. Sometimes they get in a van, or cargo trucks, and sometimes they’re wearing masks, while other times they’re not,” Holmes said.  “On my walks in the mornings, as I’m exercising I’ve seen some of the living conditions people are part of, including trailers where there are nine people living together. The overcrowded living conditions and the transportation conditions are a bad sign of how the virus may spread.” 

Holmes said there have been alarming signs from what he’s seen when he’s out testing people and talking to residents.

“I have heard from multiple people that they are feeling some symptoms or were exposed to someone who tested positive, but it’s hard to get tested themselves. Here in Immokalee, we don’t have the easy walk-up testing for everyone,” he said.

While testing sites are available in surrounding counties, people living in Immokalee struggle because of a lack of transportation. 

“The only people who can be tested in most places, are people who are symptomatic, and so everyone can’t get tested. Some of the clinics that have been planned by Doctors Without Borders and other groups have had to be canceled because there’s not enough tests to provide. It would be ideal for us to have for data, more testing, contact tracing and we need to provide what people need in order to isolate,” he said.

Those at high risk are farm workers who don’t have health insurance or can’t afford to miss a day of work.

“We need the food that farm workers provide us, so part of our relationship with the people that feed us, needs to be making sure they’re safe, making sure they have the information they need, the tests they need, and protection they need. That’s what’s important right now. Florida is one of the main agricultural producers for the whole country, so if we can protect our farmworkers, we’re also protecting our food system,” he said.

And yesterday, at long last, calls for urgent action in Immokalee were answered! 

On a weekly call to discuss coronavirus updates with Collier County officials and Immokalee community organizations, Stephanie Vick of the Collier County Health Department announced plans to partner with the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida and Doctors Without Borders to provide ongoing testing for Immokalee residents, in conjunction with the Department of Emergency Management. The testing is set to take place 3 times per week at various locations throughout town for symptomatic and asymptomatic patients alike. Perhaps most importantly, the DOH announced that testing sites will be open during evening hours to provide access to farmworkers and their families, as workers often don’t return from the fields before 7:00 or 8:00 at night. 

As hundreds of Immokalee residents grapple with illness and fear, the advent of free, community-wide testing is an important step in the right direction to mount an effective response to the public health crisis unfolding before us.  Just this week, CIW has received a flood of reports from community members who have been directly affected by COVID-19 and are now struggling to access tests or follow-up services to adequately care for themselves and their families, as well as the heartbreaking news of several deaths due to the virus. We can only hope that in the coming weeks, as the results from this second wave of mass testing begin to roll in, county officials complement the additional tests with effective contact tracing to identify and notify those who might have been exposed, as well as crucial wrap-around services to ensure that affected individuals and families can self-isolate and still meet their basic needs while in recovery. 

Check back in next week for more details on the Department of Health’s plans for community-wide testing!