This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
Two South Jersey seasonal farm workers have died after contracting COVID-19, the state Department of Health confirmed Thursday night. The disclosure comes as the number of infected seasonal farm workers in South Jersey has spiked to more than 400, a number that is raising concern among state officials and migrant advocates alike.
These were the first fatalities reported for state farm laborers. State health officials had no further details on the two victims, other than they were working in Cumberland County. NJ Spotlight has also learned that 277 seasonal farm laborers, who were tested at Cumberland County’s drive-through sites starting April 3, have been infected, according to data from the CompleteCare Health Network, which is administering the tests. These are employees who do not live on the farms for which they work, and return to apartments each evening in nearby towns.
As NJ Spotlight has reported earlier this month, more than 125 migrant workers living in farm camps in Salem and Gloucester counties have also been infected.
This latest development with so-called day laborers presents a new problem for health officials, as the infected employees are posing a risk not only to the farm, but back in their own communities where they return, in towns such as Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton.
“This is beyond concerning,” said state Senate President Steve Sweeney, whose district includes parts of Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem counties. “It’s not OK that it’s farm workers. They are human beings … and they are keeping our food chain alive.”
COVID-19 data reports do not segregate by profession. CompleteCare was able to cull this specific information from their database Wednesday in response to an inquiry from NJ Spotlight. Cumberland County Deputy Administrator Jody Hirata said she was not aware of the 277 positive cases because the county’s health department has not provided testing results in that manner, so she said she could not accurately provide any information as to how health officials were pursuing those particular seasonal workers. Hirata could not be reached Thursday night after NJ Spotlight learned of the two fatalities.
But in an interview earlier this month, Hirata hinted at the challenges health officials face. “Farmers can take precautions on the farm, but some of these workers live in high-density homes,” she said. “You can have 10 unrelated people packed in these apartments.”
“Temporary isolation housing for workers who test positive is also available at the Field Medical Station located at Atlantic City Convention Center if needed,” Department of Health spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said. “The local health departments are the lead agencies on contact tracing.”
A difficult task for contract tracers
This latest scenario poses a very difficult task for contact tracers — local health employees who interview infected residents and then attempt to determine who they have recently been in close contact with, so that they can be made aware. This is considered to be a vital element in the strategy for containing the spread of the virus.
First of all, local health departments don’t have enough resources to conduct sufficient contact tracing. The state recently announced they will be hiring about 1,000 people, whom they will dispatch to assist overwhelmed counties and municipalities. But they have yet to arrive.
Then, many cannot be reached by phone — and there is often a language problem when they are reached, as most do not speak English. Even more daunting is the fear factor: about half of the migrant workers are undocumented, and live in fear they will be deported. For them, any government official is dangerous.
“It’s not surprising to me at all,” said Jessica Culley, general coordinator of CATA, an immigrant advocacy group that is closely monitoring New Jersey’s migrant communities. “People have been telling us for some time, that they were infected and sick.”
A state initiative to test all migrant workers began last week in Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties. CompleteCare, a federally qualified medical center, is conducting the testing on farms in Cumberland County and parts of Gloucester. The nonprofit also has a longstanding migrant worker health program.
On Wednesday, the state issued extensive safety guidelines for farmers who employ migrant workers. But they are not mandatory; they are merely advisory — unlike measures the governor mandated for retail businesses via executive order last month. When asked at the administration’s daily COVID-19 briefing why they weren’t mandatory for farmers, neither Gov. Phil Murphy nor Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli answered the question.
“Migrant seasonal workers … is something we’re very focused on,” Murphy said.
‘You leave the door wide open’
Sweeney wasn’t completely convinced.
“I was happy to hear they finally put the guidance out,” he said. “But by making it advisory, you leave the door wide open for this to continue.”
CATA’s Culley too was not enthusiastic Thursday, and was withholding judgment: “Our initial read of the guidelines leaves us with many concerns about what protections for farm workers will actually be implemented on the ground.”
The guidelines also condone farmers with insufficient labor to allow infected, asymptomatic workers back into the fields, as long as they wear masks or keep six-foot distancing. The governor and commissioner also did not respond to this matter when questioned at the daily briefing.
“The guidelines provide a set of best practice recommendations for all farms and growers to protect the health of their seasonal workers and the greater farming community from infection and spread of COVID-19 throughout the growing season, and the growers recognize that,” DOH’s Kearney said.
Each year, some 20,000 to 25,000 seasonal workers come to South Jersey to harvest fruits and vegetables. They sleep in cramped dormitories and dine in tight cafeterias. Some work shoulder to shoulder in packing houses. Persichilli announced earlier this month that the state has partnered with four federally qualified health centers to perform voluntary tests on all migrant laborers.
NJ Spotlight reported Tuesday that 57 migrant workers at a large produce farm in Gloucester County have tested positive for COVID-19. That followed another NJ Spotlight story, first reported on May 11, that 59 workers from a farm in Salem County had tested positive — more than half of the farm’s workforce.
Other farm workers tested
The testing in Salem County and parts of Gloucester is being conducted by the South Jersey Family Medical Center. Outside the single farm with 59 infected workers, the news is much better. They have tested 227 laborers from 10 other farms, and only one person has tested positive.
In the coming weeks, the migrant population will start swelling dramatically when workers start arriving to pick blueberries, predominately in Atlantic County.