Gov. DeSantis, Collier County: Take action NOW to protect Immokalee’s farmworkers from COVID-19 ahead of the harvest!

The clock is ticking: Farmworkers returning to Florida for the fall harvest season, students returning to school in Immokalee for in-person classes, combine to create fertile ground for a new COVID-19 outbreak;

State and county health officials must take immediate action, work with internationally-acclaimed Partners In Health to protect the Sunshine State’s essential workers!

Over the past several months, Florida became a global hotspot of the coronavirus pandemic, reaching record-breaking infection levels in early July that would have ranked the state 4th in the world for new coronavirus cases in a day if it were a country.  The rural farmworker community of Immokalee contributed more than its fair share to this grim achievement:  As of yesterday, there have been over 2,250 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Immokalee, surpassing totals in many of the state’s much larger coastal cities.

Sadly, farmworker leaders with the CIW predicted this outcome since the very onset of the pandemic in March.  But despite having more than sufficient time to prepare for the onslaught, state and local health officials failed to adequately respond to the growing public health crisis, at both the state and Immokalee community levels.  Florida and Collier County officials were slow to lock-down economic activity and late to implement widespread testing in Immokalee, allowing the virus to establish a secure foothold in the community.  They then largely failed to build the kind of contact tracing and isolation systems necessary to locate and contain the virus, and were too quick to re-open economic activity, providing the virus fertile ground for its almost unchecked spread from May to July. 

While the spread of the virus appears to have slowed somewhat since its peak in July, as thousands of farmworkers traveled north for the summer harvest and officials slowed testing schedules significantly, a second major outbreak in the months ahead remains a clear and present danger for the Immokalee community.  With the fall harvest season fast-approaching, Immokalee’s population is set to double as thousands more essential workers return to town, and thousands of school-aged children are returning to in-person classes unsure of the dangers that lay ahead.  A second perfect storm of contagion is brewing on the horizon, and we cannot afford to fail again. 

We need your help to renew the call for immediate action from Florida officials ahead of the fall harvest to protect the farmworkers who feed us all.

Meanwhile, state and local officials are touting reduced daily case numbers to push for the re-opening of schools and a return to “normal”.  But a closer look at the situation casts a dubious light on the recent decline in case numbers.  Over the past two months, testing sites have been quietly dismantled and withdrawn from cities and rural areas alike.  Still existing testing sites were frequently closed for weather, including hurricanes that threatened, but never affected, the state.  In short, testing numbers, shown in blue in the graph below, began to drop steadily over recent months, dragging new case numbers down along with them.

But even as lower testing rates suppress official case numbers, the deaths of mothers and fathers, friends and co-workers, grandparents and neighbors, shown in yellow below, continued to rise, and the losses were felt across the Sunshine State:

With the rising death toll putting the lie to the official narrative of a pandemic coming under control, officials recently implemented a new policy that promises to cast doubt on the number of reported COVID-related deaths in the state.  Just last week, in an unprecedented move that deprives localities of a clear picture of the pandemic’s impact in their community, Florida Medical Examiner offices “stopped determining which deaths are attributable to COVID-19,” relinquishing their mandate to certify COVID-related deaths.  

Floridians don’t need statistical smoke and mirrors, they need information they can rely on, and concrete action.  No matter how hard we try, we can’t just wish the pandemic away.  The Collier County Department of Health and Governor Ron DeSantis must act swiftly in order to quell the pandemic, and prevent an even more vicious outbreak in the months ahead.  Florida’s tens of thousands of farmworkers are among those most at risk communities in the state for contracting the coronavirus due to overcrowded housing, unsanitary working conditions, and extreme poverty.  And if they are at risk, our nation’s food supply is, too. 

The Time for Action is Now…

We must take action – and the good news is, we don’t have to do it alone.

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic, the farmworker community is not alone today in its battle with the coronavirus as the fall harvest approaches. Partners In Health, one of the country’s leading experts on contact tracing, has established a team in Immokalee. In an op/ed in the Naples Daily News, Dr. Dan Palazuelos of Partners In Health laid out exactly what needs to be done to stop the pandemic in its tracks:

“Progress is possible. In order to ‘go on offense’ against this disease, you have to test all cases, trace all contacts, and isolate those cases and contacts. You have to do all of this really well, and a lot.”

Partners In Health stands ready to assist local public health and emergency services departments, and to offer its experience and resources free of charge, in efforts ranging from community health education to contact tracing.  But so far, local officials have rejected expert help with contact tracing, which is proven to be one of the most important tools to stop community transmission of the deadly virus.  If Collier County accepted the offer of assistance from Partners In Health, the farmworker community, and public health in general, could benefit from another set of eyes and hands on the job. During times like this, we need to welcome all the expertise available.

In the absence of political will and leadership, the Immokalee community has risen to the challenge of protecting itself – from broadcasting critical information for the community through Radio Concienciathe CIW’s community-based radio station, to ensuring that workers on Fair Food farms have knowledge of and access to the Program’s 24/7 complaint line – which has now become a lifeline during the pandemic.  But we are far from ready for the coming season, and the fundamental recipe for winning this battle that our community needs from the State of Florida and Collier County is clear:

  1. Contact Tracing and Isolation: In collaboration with Partners In Health, ensure effective contact tracing protocols and a separate quarantine space to ensure COVID-positive patients in Immokalee can self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the virus in the community and relieve stress on the local health system;
  2. Community-wide Testing: Provide additional, consistent, accessible COVID-19 testing resources
  3. PPE: Require agricultural employers to provide personal protective gear, particularly masks, to farmworkers for use while they are traveling to and from the fields
  4. Economic Relief: Allocate public funds for economic relief for Florida farmworkers

If we fail once again as a state and as a county, the hardworking women, men, and families of Immokalee’s farmworker community will be faced with a grim and devastating reality.  Governor Ron DeSantis and the Collier Department of Health can no longer ignore the unique needs of Immokalee, and must act now to protect this vulnerable and essential community.  Farmworkers’ lives depend on it.