Coronavirus infections spike as seasonal farmworkers are blocked from testing - The Washington Post
In Yakima County, Wash., some fruit orchard owners declined on-site testing of workers by health departments at the height of harvest season even as coronavirus infections spiked. In Monterey, Calif., workers at some farms claimed foremen asked them to hide positive diagnoses from other crew members. And in Collier County, Fla., health officials did not begin widespread testing of farmworkers until the end of harvest, at which point the workers had already migrated northward.At the height of harvest season, growers supplying some of America’s biggest agricultural companies and grocery store chains flouted public health guidelines to limit testing and obscure coronavirus outbreaks, according to thousands of pages of state and local records reviewed by The Washington Post.
The pandemic redefined where essential work happens in America and brought recognition to seasonal agricultural workers under the H-2A visa program.
At the same time, state agencies and growers were slow to determine how and when to test workers, what protocols to adopt when workers tested positive, and how to institute contact tracing, advocates say. They say that there should have been mandatory personal protective equipment and clear guidance on worker safety at the federal and state levels.Worker advocates say the failures put millions of workers at greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus among themselves and to other Americans as they crossed state lines to move with the harvest season. The struggles to contain the virus among migrant farmworkers are documented in internal state and county agriculture and health department records, as well as email exchanges with farm bureaus, grower associations, and public health and worker advocacy groups that were obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation through public records requests and shared with The Post. These documents and additional interviews by The Post show a pattern that extended across more than a dozen agricultural counties in 10 states — and that largely withstood officials’ attempts to stop the spread of the virus among agricultural workers.