Farmworkers in America’s tomato capital may have one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection globally

Located in the same county as one of Florida’s wealthiest communities, 25,000 workers in Immokalee still lack adequate protections, contact tracing, and testing facilities.

Immokalee, Florida, known as America’s tomato capital, sits on the eastern side of Collier County in Southwest Florida. It’s home to about 25,000 farmworkers, most of whom are Latino and Haitian immigrants. Immokalee has an extremely high rate of poverty, and its farmworkers often live with 10 to 12 people in single-wide trailer homes.

In May, there were 44 positive cases of Covid-19 in Immokalee. Now, just a month later, there are 870.

Physician and medical anthropologist Dr. Seth Holmes has performed dozens of tests in Immokalee and said that roughly half of them have been positive. According to Holmes, agricultural workers in Immokalee may have one of the highest rates of Coronavirus infection globally.  

Immokalee has an extremely high rate of poverty, and its farmworkers often live with 10 to 12 people in single-wide trailer homes.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Holmes left California, where he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, about a month ago to volunteer in Immokalee. He’s worked with migrant communities for the bulk of his career. He wrote the book “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” on how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism affect the health and healthcare of migrant farmworkers.  

Farmworkers were deemed essential workers by the federal government in its response to COVID-19. Still, their crowded living and working conditions combined with a lack of health services have made it nearly impossible for them to protect themselves from the pandemic in Immokalee and beyond. America’s farmworkers are risking their lives to feed us. 

Collier County also happens to be home to one of the wealthiest communities in the country according to a Bloomberg analysis. The gulf side Port Royal area in Naples is awash with multimillion-dollar mansions, one of which is owned by Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican. According to a study by the Keystone Research Center it’s the most unequal metro in Florida, ranking third in income inequality in the country. 

Dr. Seth Holmes has performed dozens of tests in Immokalee and said that roughly half of them have been positive.

Doctors Without Borders visited Immokalee at the end of April as part of their global response to COVID-19 for vulnerable populations. They soon realized that efforts to contain and test for the virus were severely lacking. Testing kits distributed from the state and county were scarce, leading to canceled pop-up clinics and sporadic testing. Farmworkers said that they were often left wondering when and where testing would be available. 

Testing in Immokalee was finally expanded to three days a week by the Collier Department of Health (DOH) on May 31. By contrast, drive-thru testing has been available daily in surrounding municipalities since early May.  

“We have had to beg for everything we’ve received, and it’s not enough,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a senior staff member with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization. Gonzalo has lived in the community for 20 years and picked tomatoes in Immokalee’s fields for 12. 

Most of the town’s farmworkers can’t afford to own a vehicle, and there is no access to public transportation to the closest hospital, which is nearly an hour away in Naples.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Experts and community members fear that the slow trickle of resources allocated to Immokalee isn’t sufficient as positive cases surge. 

“Someone who I had tested told me that everyone in his family had tested positive and that it was because he had been exposed to someone at work,” Holmes said. “Four of his family members are in the hospital in Naples, and his uncle who’s in his mid-30s just died.” Holmes added that most people in Immokalee know someone who has gotten sick or died from COVID-19.  

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was criticized for being slow to enact stay-at-home orders when compared to other states, and Florida is among the first to reopen its economy. The CIW made urgent pleas to DeSantis in the early days of the pandemic, emphasizing the need for a field hospital so that those infected could isolate and receive adequate medical care. Most of the town’s farmworkers can’t afford to own a vehicle, and there is no access to public transportation to the closest hospital, which is nearly an hour away in Naples. 

“Workers live day-to-day, paycheck-by-paycheck. It’s been really challenging for farmworkers who have either gotten sick or are afraid of getting sick.”

The community never received a field hospital or anyplace to isolate in town, but the county DOH said that patients can isolate for free in a Naples hotel “if determined they cannot safely isolate in their home.” The county also claimed that they have agreements with transportation companies to take them to and from the hotel. 

“The DOH has been saying for a while that hotels in Naples are an option for Immokalee residents that need to self-isolate, and they’ve offered to help with transportation. But they’ve only given us vague statements about handling it on a ‘case-by-case’ basis,” a spokesperson for the CIW said. 

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Antonia Rios Hernandes has lived in Immokalee for 20 years and works the fields seasonally. At her new produce-packing job, she works alongside 70-80 people, unable to keep anywhere near the six-foot distance recommended by the CDC.

Florida’s agricultural industry is the state’s second largest economic contributor, right behind tourism. But despite making fundamental contributions to this food system and economy, nearly all of Immokalee’s farmworkers live below the poverty line. They don’t get paid if they aren’t able to work and often make less than minimum wage when they are. The Trump Administration recently announced a $19 billion aid package for farmworkers. But the aid package specifically excludes 70 percent or more of America’s essential farmworkers, who are undocumented.

“Workers live day-to-day, paycheck-by-paycheck. It’s been really challenging for farmworkers who have either gotten sick or are afraid of getting sick,” Gonzalo said. “They aren’t just concerned about the sickness; they’re concerned about paying their rent and their bills.”

Antonia Rios Hernandes tested negative for COVID-19 about a month ago, but said she’s still concerned about getting sick. Hernandes has lived in Immokalee for 20 years and works the fields seasonally. At her new produce-packing job, she works alongside 70-80 people, unable to keep anywhere near the six-foot distance recommended by the CDC. 

“We’re treated like second-class citizens just because we’re living in Immokalee,” Hernandes said. “I recently tried to talk to the county commissioner to advocate for more resources and more healthcare, but they never listen to what we have to say. They treat us like we’re inferior.”  

Holmes noted the discrepancy in care within the county as well. “There seems to be hesitance to provide care in Immokalee, but not as much hesitance in Naples,” he said. 

“What I hear from farmworkers I’ve met, is that when they get a call that tells them they’re positive, they’re not asked any contact tracing questions. Several of them have said that they’re not given any information about what they should do.”

Collier County has claimed that it’s doing contact tracing, but farmworkers who have tested positive for the virus said they haven’t seen any signs of the practice.

“We know that contact tracing is essential to quelling a pandemic,” Holmes said. “What I hear from farmworkers I’ve met, is that when they get a call that tells them they’re positive, they’re not asked any contact tracing questions. Several of them have said that they’re not given any information about what they should do.” 

Holmes said that he offered to do free contact tracing for the county at the beginning of May, but that he has yet to hear back from the county.  “I think the people of Immokalee have a sense that they aren’t a priority,” Holmes said.

Past crises have highlighted similar inequities in this Florida county. For instance, Immokalee was among the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma in Southwest Florida. As aid was rushed to nearby coastal zones, Immokalee was left to fend for itself. Stagnant water inundated entire neighborhoods, several were without homes and most were left without power for more than two weeks. Similar patterns are repeating themselves now.

“If you want to focus on the economy and focus on reopening, you have to focus on the people that make Florida’s agricultural economy function,” Holmes said.

Leah Sankey is a South Florida-based freelance journalist. She writes about the people of Florida and the matters that shape their lives.