First farmworker tests positive for COVID-19, is in isolation; advocates fear outbreak

This is a developing story.

A farmworker in eastern North Carolina is the first confirmed case of COVID-19, according to advocacy groups.

The worker’s county has not been officially disclosed because of medical privacy laws, but Lior Vered, policy advocate for ToxicFree NC, said the case was diagnosed by the Commwell Health Clinic. The clinic is headquartered in Dunn, but has facilities throughout the eastern part of the state.

The worker is in quarantine, Vered said, and there are other suspected cases, pending test results.

Policy Watch reported last month that the North Carolina Growers Association, advocates and farmers were concerned about the potential devastating effects an outbreak could have on the workforce and the food supply.

Each year, thousands of workers enter the state on H2A visas, reserved for temporary agricultural employees from other countries. That figure doesn’t include undocumented immigrants who are also part of the workforce.

“The first H2A worker who comes down with the coronavirus could shut the program down for a year,” Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association said at the time.“Growers are also worried that [the federal government] will shut down the border. If you can’t plant, you can’t harvest.”

The North Carolina Growers Association did not return an email seeking comment on the latest information. The group’s phone line was busy.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services directed growers to “create a plan for what to do if many workers are sick at the same time,” but provided no detailed guidance on what such a plan would entail.

DHHS could not be reached for comment.

“We need a state level response to help farmers, workers and growers,” Vered said. “The reality is, growers don’t have the means to implement the measures needed. This is no longer theoretical; it’s a practical problem.”

Social distancing, sanitation and quarantining sick workers all sound reasonable in theory, but these measures are hard to execute on a farm. Workers live in close quarters, sometimes barracks-style, and share a bathroom and kitchen. Tests are also in short supply.

“They are essential workers,” Vered said, adding that because of the communal nature of farming,”social distancing isn’t realistic.”

Leticia Zavala, vice-president of FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said entire crews could be sickened by the virus. Where to house the ill poses logistical problems. FEMA is supposed to allocate money to house up to 16,000 quarantined or isolated workers. “But no money has arrived yet,” Zavala said. “And there’s a lot to be worked out.”

For example, if a sick worker is housed in a hotel, it’s unclear how he or she will get meals. “Some workers are saying they were just told not come out of their room,” Zavala said.

And for the workers who are just now arriving, the days’ long bus trip from Mexico becomes more complicated when so many restaurants are either closed or drive-thru only. Even restrictions at grocery stores can affect a workers’ ability to buy cleaning and sanitizing supplies in bulk.

FLOC is taking donations for cleaning supplies to distribute to workers: Hand-washing soap, Clorox, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, handkerchiefs, masks and disinfectant wipes

Outreach staff need facemarks, gloves, anti-bacterial gel, protective equipment, thermometers and phone cards for Internet use.

Supplies can be dropped off at the FLOC office, 4354 US Hwy 117-AltS, Dudley, NC, or other locations to be arranged. Or supplies can be mailed to FLOC at PO Box 560, Dudley, NC 28333. To contact FLOC directly email [email protected]

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