Ron DeSantis blames Florida farmworkers for COVID. Aid groups say testing help came late.

And many farmworkers have moved on to other states as the harvest season has ended.
Farm workers harvest a field of blueberries, maintaining four to six feet of distance from each other while picking, at Starkey Blueberry Farms on Friday, April 10, 2020 in Odessa.
Farm workers harvest a field of blueberries, maintaining four to six feet of distance from each other while picking, at Starkey Blueberry Farms on Friday, April 10, 2020 in Odessa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published June 19, 2020|Updated June 19, 2020

Public health experts and aid groups are challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ assertion this week that migrant farmworkers are driving Florida’s record surge in COVID-19 cases — noting that state help with testing, face masks and educational outreach has been late to reach agricultural communities.

After DeSantis said last week that “the No. 1 outbreak we’ve seen is in agricultural communities” and followed up this week with statements that “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farmworkers and day laborers were the leading source of new cases, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried fired back, noting that the majority of farmworkers left several weeks ago after harvests ended and that cases are spiking in non-agricultural areas.

But many farmworkers live in Florida year round, and public health experts who work with those communities say the state has only recently begun to ramp up testing and public health education campaigns in agricultural communities, where cramped working and living conditions can fuel an outbreak of COVID-19.

The state health department did not provide data or maps to the Miami Herald to document the incidence of COVID-19 by ZIP code in South Florida’s agricultural communities.

COVID-19 likely has been present in Miami-Dade’s agricultural communities of Homestead, Florida City and Naranja for months, but those cases have been missed by the state’s testing efforts, said Patria Rojas, a public health expert at Florida International University.

The first testing site in south Hillsborough opened this week in Wimauma, said Lourdes Villanueva, the director of Farmworker Advocacy for Redlands Christian Migrant Association. Many farms in that area already finished their harvest, she said.

“From day one we asked for help for farm workers, none came,” Lourdes said. “It’s always about blaming the less fortunate and the ones that cannot defend themselves.”

Most farmworkers do not own cars and cannot be tested at the state’s drive-thru sites, Rojas said. They get to and from work in packed buses, start work before sunrise, and often labor in fields until sundown, she said. Because most of Miami-Dade’s farmworkers are immigrants, she added, they also tend to keep a low profile to avoid “anti-immigrant sentiment.”

“There’s a lot of under-testing because of that,” Rojas said. “If it’s true that there is a lot of positive COVID-19 among the agricultural community, we don’t know.”

Rojas said the Florida Department of Health appeared to be making a concerted effort to reach those people. On Tuesday, state officials tested about 200 people in a few hours in using a mobile unit in Florida City, she said.

The factors that would prevent a Florida farmworker from getting tested — poor access to healthcare and living in trailers and tents that lack the infrastructure for maintaining hygiene, such as running water — have left them so vulnerable that they drew the attention of an organization dedicated to working during health crises in developing countries.

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Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian group, launched its first mission in Florida in May after considering how vulnerable farmworkers would be to COVID-19.

Before Florida officials had begun homing in on farmworkers, Doctors Without Borders had already sent teams of medical workers to South Florida and set up mobile clinics in Collier County’s agricultural community of Immokalee to provide public health education and to offer coronavirus tests.

“We were concerned that there had been no testing done among that population,” said Jean Stowell, a nurse and the head of the U.S. COVID-19 response for Doctors without Borders, which has also launched similar efforts in Michigan, where farmworkers head this time of year to harvest bell peppers and other crops.

Stowell said the group collaborated with the state health department and the Florida National Guard to test more than 1,000 migrant workers in May, but had to wait a long time for results. The group then set up nine mobile clinics in parking lots and near farms to make testing more accessible to workers. They discovered a high incidence of infection.

“We saw a 37% positivity rate,” Stowell said, adding that only about 225 migrant farm workers were tested. By comparison, Florida’s statewide positive rate ranged from 4% to 8% at that time.

Many of the workers tested were either feeling ill or sharing a trailer or tent with others who were ill, she said, which helps explain why the rate of positive results out of all tests performed was so high. Stowell added that workers who knew they had COVID-19 were not able to self-quarantine for 14 days despite the medical advice that they do so.

Public officials were aware of these realities months ago. Multiple farm worker advocacy groups wrote the administration to warn that farms were especially vulnerable to the virus and asked the state for help. In a 10-page strategy for re-opening the state, Fried suggested DeSantis ensure protective gear for agricultural workers.

“If not for the farmworkers going into the field and risking their livelihood and health and their families’ health, we wouldn’t have food on our plate. Public offiicals have known these are the conditions that workers tend to work in, but they weren’t prioritizing a plan for how to protect them,” Oscar Otzoy, a staff member with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, told the Tampa Bay Times through a translator. “They dragged their feet, and now there’s a big problem due to this late response.”

As the harvest season began to wind down at the end of May, Doctors Without Borders handed off the mobile clinics and educational outreach campaign to the Florida health department, which took over at the beginning of June, Stowell said.

“We’re deeply worried about where the farmworkers go because the same situation will repeat itself everywhere they go,” she said. “They won’t have access to testing outside of work hours. And if you tell someone they’re positive, they still have to go to work.”

Immokalee’s harvest season typically runs from October through May, when farms grow tomatoes, strawberries, okra and other crops. But many workers remain in Florida year round, harvesting fruits and vegetables when they’re in season, and working at nurseries when the harvest is over.

Rojas said those workers, who were deemed essential by the federal government, work long hours packaging vegetables and fruits in enclosed areas where they do not practice social distancing and where personal protective gear, such as face masks and eye shields, is often not available. Rojas said the health department recently began distributing cloth face masks for workers.

“It’s slowly coming in, the help for PPE,” she said.

When DeSantis cited outbreaks among farmworkers as a leading driver of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, he added that a watermelon farm in north central Florida had recently seen a lot of cases.

But Franco Ripple, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said much of the rise in new cases since June 10 has occurred in counties where there is little agriculture.

“With 12,333 new cases across the state since June 10, naming rural and farm communities as a main driver is not accurate,” Ripple said in a prepared statement. “The governor is cherry-picking data in an attempt to blame farmworkers and agriculture for the spread of COVID-19, by highlighting a small sample size from one farm.”

Ripple said that the rise in COVID-19 cases in three counties named by the governor — Martin, Collier and Alachua — accounted for less than 9% of new cases reported statewide since June 10.

Lisa Lochridge, the director of public affairs for Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said they were aware of the outbreak at the watermelon farm, but the association didn’t know of any other “hot spots” or why DeSantis would suggest agriculture was leading to new coronavirus cases.

“I can’t say I know what was driving that,” Lochridge said.

Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Department of Health, said the agency has been working with local partners, including hospitals, charities, religious groups and others to ensure that farmworkers have access to testing and personal protective equipment.

“DOH is actively engaged with farming communities and migrant camps to strengthen and foster relationships by distributing cloth face coverings and COVID-19 testing opportunities,” Moscoso said in an email.

As the health department sends more resources to Florida’s agricultural communities, Rojas emphasized that migrant farmworkers can often be isolated from the rest of the community because they lack transportation, work long hours in less populated regions and many may have entered the United States without legal authorization.

“You must go to them,” she said. “They’re not going to come out.”