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Coalition of Immokalee Workers warns fall harvest could lead to new COVID-19 outbreak

Posted at 10:58 PM, Sep 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-09 22:58:05-04

IMMOKALEE — Farm workers will soon be returning for the fall harvest, and advocates say that could lead to a resurgence of COVID-19.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has sent a letter to Governor DeSantis, calling for more help for contact tracing.

In the month of May, Immokalee saw its COVID-19 cases go from under 100 to almost 1,000. That’s what the Coalition is hoping to prevent as farm workers come back, but it says right now, it's concerned because the Department of Health is turning down free help.

“When those workers come back, we want to make sure that we’re putting into practice the lessons that we learned a few months back about what needs to happen to not have that spike," said Coalition member Oscar Otzoy, through an interpreter.

In its letter to the Governor, the Coalition calls for the Department of Health to work with the organization Partners in Health to provide contact tracing for everyone who tests positive. Partners in Health has offered to help the State of Florida, pro-bono.

“With adequate contact tracing, we can help those people to get the resources that they need to be able to stay at home, so as not to propagate the disease more, and so that’s why we’re asking the Department of Health to accept that help that’s been offered to them," said Otzoy.

We spoke with a representative from Partners in Health, Dan Palazuelos, who emphasized the importance of contact tracing. He said his organization knows how to do it.

“We have to find all of the cases, and all of their contacts, and help them to get into quarantine or isolation within three days. Without that, we can expect cases to continue to spread," said Palazuelos.

But so far, the Department of Health has not asked Partners in Health for assistance with contact tracing. When we asked why, the Department responded saying "Any entity that would assist in contact tracing efforts would need to become either a background screened 110 volunteer of our agency and subject to being managed as our employee or be a contracted agency approved by the Florida Department of Health.”

Partners in Health said it wasn’t aware of those requirements, and would be looking into it. Meanwhile, the Department of Health says it is prepared to meet the demand when the farm workers return, but the Coalition isn’t so sure.

“All that they’ve said is great, that they have in the pike, but we really need to see it in action," said Otzoy.

The Coalition says, when the fall harvest begins, the population of Immokalee doubles, and most of the workers live in cramped housing. That’s why they want to get ahead of the problem, before it’s too late.