At “the epicenter of the epicenter”…

CIW’s Gerardo Reyes on MSNBC “Into America” podcast: “The people that place the food on the table of every family deserve better.”

Month of June sees national media attention turn to the disaster unfolding in CIW’s backyard, as COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Immokalee, rest of Florida…

For people living in Immokalee, the month of June was like no other in living memory.  As the deadly coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the farmworker community, and increased testing — finally — revealed the depth and breadth of the virus’s reach, it became painfully clear that life in this small agricultural community would never be the same after this summer of sickness, fear, and confusion.  For some, it was the loss of a loved one.  For others it was their own struggle with the still mysterious symptoms of COVID-19.  But by the end of June, you would be hard-pressed to find a single soul living in Immokalee who had been spared the pain and sadness of the growing outbreak.  

And Immokalee was hardly alone, as Florida became a new epicenter of the pandemic on the national level.  The graph below, from the New York Times, speaks volumes: 

For the first three months of the pandemic, and even at its early apex in April, the daily count of new cases hovered around the 2,000 mark — the Y axis needed no adjustment from March through the end of May.  But with the lessening of the lockdown came the onslaught, and the graph-makers at the Times were forced to adjust the parameters several times over the month of June, with new cases now regularly topping 10,000 per day, with no end in sight.  And Immokalee, with the highest number of cases by zip code in the entire state, stands at the epicenter of the epicenter as we turn the page on the calendar and begin the dog days of summer.

This unprecedented crisis naturally brought national media attention to Immokalee, and we have selected five of the best stories from national outlets reporting on the pandemic.  At the top of today’s post is an excellent video from the beginning of June, when the dimensions of the crisis were just beginning to come into focus, produced by Soledad O’Brien’s new project, “Matter of Fact”.  Be sure to check out that video for an excellent summary of the situation in Immokalee and its possible impact on the food system.

Next up is an in-depth report from the New York Times, titled “Florida’s Coronavirus Spike is Ravaging Migrant Farmworkers”.  Here is an extended excerpt (the full article is well worth checking out if you haven’t read it yet):

Florida’s agricultural communities have become cradles of infection, fueling a worrying new spike in the state’s daily toll in new infections, which has hit new records in recent days. The implications go far beyond Florida: Case numbers in places like Immokalee are swelling just as many farmworkers are migrating up the Eastern Seaboard for the summer harvest.

As is the case with agricultural communities around the country, Florida’s farming regions have a high degree of built-in risk. Fruit and vegetable pickers toil close to each other in fields, ride buses shoulder-to-shoulder and sleep in cramped apartments or trailers with other laborers or several generations of their families.

Immokalee has a small federally funded clinic, but does not have its own hospital. […]

[…] Despite the known risks, it took many weeks for a coordinated public health response to take shape in Immokalee. Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit organization that usually deploys to poor and conflict-ridden parts of the world, arrived in April to help at the request of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Its roving testing site has twice set up at the flea market off Main Street, with its outdoor clothes racks and taco stands.

“We’re also still a little shocked that we’re here,” said Jean Stowell, who oversees the organization’s domestic coronavirus response team, which has embedded in the Navajo Nation, New York and Puerto Rico. “We knew that migration was an issue in the U.S. that would expose people to vulnerability. We knew that they would struggle to get care.” […]

[…] The Florida Department of Health did not do mass local testing until early May, and then found an alarming number of cases in Immokalee and other largely immigrant and impoverished farm towns. […]

[…] And Immokalee, a community of 25,000 on the western edge of the Everglades, has 1,207 — more than Miami Beach, a city three times larger. The positive test rate in Collier County, home to Immokalee, is 10 percent, about double the state rate. […]

[…] Yet the growing numbers and the potential for the virus to spread further outside of farming communities have remained a concern for state officials.

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Mr. DeSantis said last week, infuriating longtime community activists who say the answer is not to isolate an already overlooked population but rather to help improve its working and housing conditions.

“There’s a big disincentive to take care of oneself and take care of one’s co-workers,” said Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council, a Sarasota-based organization that works with tomato growers and migrant workers. She said that agricultural employers in Florida were largely exempt from having to compensate workers who stay home sick, and that workers often ignore their symptoms and show up for work. “There’s a big fear of missing a paycheck,” she said.

MSNBC also covered the outbreak in Immokalee during the month of June, twice in fact.  The first was a visit to Immokalee by MSNBC correspondent Kerry Sanders, which included an interview with the CIW’s Nely Rodriguez outside the CIW’s community center, which remains closed due to the virus but continues to serve as a hub for public health education through the CIW’s low-power radio station, Radio Conciencia, and the collection and distribution of PPE resources to thousands of essential workers.  

Check out the MSNBC video here:

And take a moment — fifteen minutes, more or less — to listen to MSNBC’s second report on the COVID-19 crisis in Immokalee, an in-depth discussion of the challenges facing the farmworker community with the CIW’s Gerardo Reyes and Greg Asbed,on MSNBC’s “Into America” podcast:

Finally, we give the last word on today’s media round-up to our partners at Doctors Without Borders, who were the first to respond to the Immokalee community’s call for help back in May and moved out of town one month later, on their way to continue supporting farmworkers as they move north up the Eastern Seaboard on the summer harvesting season.  Doctors Without Borders, a Nobel Prize-winning health organization accustomed to working in war zones and refugees camps across the globe, assessed the gathering storm in Immokalee over two months ago, when state and local leaders and public health authorities were still in denial and had yet to begin testing, and sent a team that really kickstarted efforts to combat the virus in Immokalee.  They wrote a report on their delegation to Immokalee for their own website, and we are happy to share an extended excerpt from that report with you here below:

Immokalee, Florida, June 26, 2020—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has completed the handover of its COVID-19 testing and public health program for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, to the county health department and local organizations.

The international medical humanitarian organization spent two months in Immokalee, where an estimated 15,000-20,000 migrant farmworkers continued to work during the pandemic with minimal access to health care and testing. Beginning in early May, MSF ran a public health education campaign and mobile testing clinics in collaboration with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida, and the Collier County Department of Health. […]

[…] “Through our program, MSF demonstrated the importance of testing at more accessible hours and in preferred languages to reach vulnerable communities,” said Jean Stowell, head of MSF’s US COVID-19 response. “We trust that county officials will continue to incorporate this approach to local testing efforts moving forward. It is imperative to ensure that high-risk communities such as farmworkers and other essential workers are not forgotten in the public health response to COVID-19.”

Working with local partners and targeting high-risk communities, MSF ran 12 pop-up testing clinics and helped to administer 465 COVID-19 tests over six weeks. As of June 2, 36 percent of those tests were positive. By comparison, as of that same week, the state positivity rate was 5.6 percent. 

“Testing results confirmed that there is a high level of community transmission in the area,” said Stowell. “These results were not entirely unexpected given the specific work and housing conditions that make farmworkers so vulnerable to COVID-19. Local human rights and health organizations had been calling for more attention and testing in these communities for months. But there is a continued need in farmworker communities, both in Immokalee and throughout the US, for sustained and accessible testing, contact tracing, and safe places for people who are sick or exposed to isolate.” […] 

[…] As Florida’s stay at home orders have been lifted and cases start to climb throughout the state in non-agricultural areas, it is critical that county officials continue mass testing and other important public health efforts in Immokalee. MSF stresses the importance of continued access to testing for all community members at convenient times, locations, and in their preferred languages, the need for an accessible-entry process for use of the new isolation center in Immokalee, and quality contact tracing to efficiently identify people who may have contracted the virus.

“In order to control further spread of COVID-19 in Immokalee and in vulnerable farmworker communities all over the country, local health officials need to continue to focus on people who are at heightened risk and make it as easy as possible for them to access testing, information, isolation facilities, and care,” said Doyle. “These very basic public health efforts are the only ways to break the chains of transmission, stop this outbreak and keep people safe.”

That’s it for today’s update.  Be sure to check back later this week for the very latest news from Immokalee.