Governor DeSantis and Collier Department of Health: Protect Florida farmworkers during the COVID-19 crisis!
We urgently call on the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Collier County Department of Health to take all necessary steps to protect the community of essential farmworkers in Immokalee during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Public health efforts taken over the past several months have been, by any objective measure, inadequate to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in Immokalee.  The failure of those efforts resulted, all too predictably, in a severe outbreak, including at least two dozen deaths, and placed the vital farming community atop the list of cases per ZIP code in the state.  It goes without saying that many of those deaths could have been prevented had the proper measures been implemented in a timely fashion.

However, it is still not too late to put the necessary measures in place ahead of the start of the harvest season this fall, when Immokalee’s population will double with an influx of farmworkers.  Those measures are recommended by the overwhelming majority of public health experts, and include the following:

1) Community-wide Testing: Provide additional, consistent, accessible COVID-19 testing resources

2) Contact Tracing and Isolation: In collaboration with Partners in Health (PIH), 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

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

To achieve these goals, we call on the Collier County Department of Health and all other relevant agencies and officials to begin working with PIH, an internationally-recognized leader in public health and a national expert in the field of contact tracing, and with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in a formal partnership focusing on contact tracing, isolation services, and public education.

Unless these measures are implemented with sufficient resources and commitment to be effective, Immokalee will remain an epicenter of contagion, with dire consequences not only for the farmworker community in Immokalee and the broader Southwest Florida region, but also the broader Florida agricultural industry and the food supply of the entire United States.

In April, farmworkers in Immokalee sounded the alarm about the farmworker community’s unique vulnerability, due to a combination of critical factors, including: 1) overcrowded housing and transportation conditions; 2) the designation of agriculture as an essential industry during this pandemic; and 3) a near total lack of access to medical care and resources even before COVID-19.  

Unfortunately, that alarm was effectively ignored, and since that time there have been over 2,000 confirmed cases in Immokalee, vastly surpassing some of the state's much larger coastal cities.  Without significant steps to address these factors immediately, the number of cases in Immokalee will continue to increase exponentially as the population swells with essential workers this fall.

Despite significant public pressure to protect the state’s essential farmworkers against COVID-19, consistent testing did not begin in Immokalee until May 31, and even then the state was slow and ineffectual in responding to the extraordinarily high risk posed by the novel coronavirus in agricultural communities like Immokalee.  Contact tracing and isolation efforts likewise were launched too late, and with too few resources, to be effective.

Now, with the fall harvest season fast-approaching and Immokalee's population set to double with the arrival of thousands more essential workers — not to mention the return of Florida’s millions of students to school, and the advent of the coming flu season, both of which are predicted to significantly complicate the effective management of the pandemic — we cannot afford to fail again.  It is critical for the Collier Department of Health and Governor Ron DeSantis to act decisively in order to meet the challenge posed by this deadly virus and quell the outbreak.  Florida’s tens of thousands of farmworkers are among those most at risk of contracting the coronavirus, and if they are at risk, our nation’s food supply is, too.

Fortunately, unlike in the early days of the pandemic, the farmworker community is not alone today in its battle with the coronavirus.  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. It is imperative that Collier County accept the offer of assistance from Partners in Health, rather than continue to deny the farmworker community the benefit of PIH’s expertise.

We must work together to ensure that community-wide testing with swift results remains accessible in Immokalee, and that health officials follow-up with positive patients to trace contacts and offer isolation options free-of-charge.  It is also critical for the Collier Health Department to ensure there is ongoing, multilingual community education efforts, such as the department’s community health worker program.

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 must act now to protect this vulnerable, vital, and essential community.


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers
The Alliance for Fair Food
The Student/Farmworker Alliance
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