Immokalee residents line up for COVID-19 tests conducted by Florida National Guard, with support of the Florida Department of Health in Collier County on Sunday, May 3, 2020 at the Florida Department of Health in Immokalee. (Photo: Jon Austria/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)
The state agriculture department is stepping in to boost COVID-19 testing among farmworkers but Immokalee isn’t slated for help, according to state officials.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is working with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to provide more testing among farmworkers in advance of the fall harvest season. The state’s Division of Emergency Management will also be involved.
However, Collier is not targeted for ramped up testing even though Immokalee in eastern Collier was a hot spot for COVID-19 when migrant farmworkers were still present this past spring.
Immokalee is the hub of the $4 billion that agriculture contributes to Collier’s economy. Roughly 15,000 migrant farmworkers are returning now to Immokalee to prepare for the fall harvest.
As of Friday, Immokalee’s total COVID-19 cases since March stands at 2,344; there have been 55 new cases in the last three weeks.
Fried announced the testing initiative in a phone call Thursday with Palm Beach county officials and farmers.
Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties are first to get additional COVID-19 testing help next week and will be followed by Hendry and St. Lucie counties, according to the agriculture department.
Testing will be available for free for farmworkers and their families, along with employers with results in 36 hours.
The agriculture department said it worked with the agriculture industry and local government officials across the state to identify the counties with the highest level of need for additional testing among farmworkers, spokesman Maxwell Flugrath said.
He said Collier was included in the initial recommendation but staff were told help was not needed.
“Our team communicated with Collier County personnel about the initiative, who shared that they had been providing testing, including to agricultural workers for months, and that they felt their testing infrastructure could handle local needs,” Flugrath said.
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There is no timeline for when help could be offered in Collier but the department remains ready to help if the need arises, he said.
Collier Commissioner Bill McDaniel, whose district includes Immokalee, said he was not contacted by the agriculture department about the renewed testing focus on farmworkers.
“I would have liked to be communicated with (on this),” he said. “We all know the workers are on their way back.”
The state Department of Health in Collier referred inquiries to the agriculture department, according to spokeswoman Kristine Hollingsworth.
“However, we stand ready to increase testing in Immokalee if it becomes necessary,” she said.
Walk-up testing through the health department is already available three days a week in Immokalee, in addition to ongoing outreach and other services that include financial assistance for rent, utilities, food and isolation support.
The health department recently purchased a mobile van to go into neighborhoods and migrant camps to do testing.
Healthcare Network, based in Immokalee, also does testing and outreach in the community.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which fears a surge of infection this winter, is pleased that Fried is providing additional support for farmworkers statewide, according to coalition representative Nely Rodriguez.
Southwest Florida is home to the largest farmworker population and the region is in dire need of these targeted testing services, she said.
“Along with Hendry County, Collier County is the heart of the region’s farmworker community, and so we are confident that Commissioner Fried will be directing those same resources to Immokalee and other Collier farmworker communities as soon as practically possible, and when they arrive here the CIW stands ready to help.”
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