IMMOKALEE — COVID-19 cases are exploding right now in one of the most vulnerable parts of Southwest Florida.
The town of Immokalee now has more than 1,000 cases, the second most of any zip code in the state, and a delay in testing may be part of the reason why.
On Wednesday, we visited a clinic there run by Dr. Antonio Gonzalez, where nurses in protective gear were hurrying through the hallways.
“I already have two patients in the hospital with pneumonia," said Dr. Gonzalez.
Dr. Gonzalez brought us in to see another patient waiting to be tested for COVID-19.
“When we first started doing the testing, you could do 10 tests and 2 people will come out. Now I do probably 20 in a day and 20 come out positive. So that’s how bad it is," said Dr. Gonzalez.
Dr. Gonzalez is worried.
Immokalee is now what he calls a “hot spot”, a place where the curve is not flattening. And according to the Collier County Commission, they’re starting to see the effects in other parts of the county. Right now, 30% of the COVID-19 patients at NCH Hospital, and 45% of the patients at Physicians Regional are from Immokalee.
“If people don’t take this seriously, we’re going to have a lot of dead people in here," said Dr. Gonzalez.
All the way back on March 16th, mass testing sites were set up in Fort Myers and in Naples. But 16 days later, Immokalee still had no testing sites of its own. That’s when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers put a petition online, calling for help. But it wasn’t the Department of Health that answered first.
"Farmworkers and packing house workers they can't work from home, they can't fully mitigate their risk on their way to and from work on buses and public transportation, many live in very crowded housing," said Katie Irwin, with Doctors Without Borders, in an interview back on May 20th.
Doctors Without Borders normally works in third-world countries, but when they were contacted by the Coalition in April, they agreed to come to Immokalee. It’s only the second time the organization has ever worked inside the United States. The only other time was after Hurricane Sandy back in 2012.
Finally, on May 3rd, the Department of Health, in cooperation with the National Guard, set up a walk-up mass testing site. It was about a month and a half after the Governor had declared a state of emergency. The site was open for three days, then it was gone, leaving Doctors Without Borders to continue the work.
"It's encouraging that the National Guard and the Department of Health have conducted mass testing, but there's also a need to continue on-demand testings," said Irwin.
But the Department of Health didn’t bring back that on-demand testing for 26 days, until May 31st. By that time, the case number in Immokalee was in the hundreds, and volunteer Dr. Seth Holmes was ringing the alarm bell.
“Right now, it doesn’t feel like it’s under control, it feels like it’s out of control, and so it doesn’t feel like I should leave yet," said Holmes, in an interview on May 25th.
This week, with cases now over 1,000 in Immokalee alone, we caught up with a member of the Coalition to get their reaction.
“If anything, what this pandemic has shown is nothing new. If anything it’s just reinforced what we’ve already known, which is that rural communities like Immokalee typically do not have a lot of resources, are typically not in the top of the totem pole in terms of urgency to want to support them," said Nely Rodriguez, with the Coalition.
That lack of resources have left people like Dr. Gonzalez to deal with the outcome. As he works to test as many as he can in his small clinic, he is urging people to take this seriously.
“Sanitizing your hands and keeping the social distance will help a lot to prevent this disease from spreading more and killing more people," said Dr. Gonzalez.