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Florida migrant towns become coronavirus hot spots in US

When much of the world was staying at home to slow the spread of the new corona virus, Elbin Sales Perez continued to rise at 4:30 am. to report to his landscaping job in a rural Florida town.

Now, a couple of months later, as state imposed restrictions are lifted and Floridians begin to venture out, the Guatemalan immigrant is ill and isolated at home with his wife and children in Immokalee, a poverty stricken town in the throes of one of the sharpest COVID-19 up ticks in the state.

“We had to work. If we don’t, then who does it?” said Sales Perez, 31, who noted that his job was deemed essential. “We had to battle every day with the threat of the virus looming, until we caught it.

Immokalee is among several immigrant communities in Florida — and numerous rural areas across the U.S. — that have recently experienced outbreaks of the corona virus. Once thought likely to be spared because of their remote locations and small populations, such communities have seen spikes in infections while having fewer resources to deal with them.

Per capita, Florida ranks relatively low in its rate of new COVID-19 cases, at about 31st in the country, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University. But the state has seen an upswing in new COVID-19 cases since it began gradually lifting restrictions on businesses and movement last month, especially in the past week. The increase may at least partly be due to expanded testing. Still, the uptick has been pronounced in some communities, including Immokalee.

The secluded town of 25,000 north of the Everglades has reported more than 1,000 cases, outpacing in recent weeks the rate of infection in Orlando, which has a population 10 times bigger and is home to a busy international airport. The number of total cases in Immokalee has surpassed those in Miami Beach, with more than 900, and St. Petersburg, which has more than 800, according to state health department statistics.

Meanwhile, the percentage of tests that have come back positive in Collier County, home to Immokalee, is the highest in the state among counties that have tested more than 5,000 people.

Sales Perez knows many people who have gotten sick in this rural town known for its tomato farms. A close friend got ill, the friend’s brother was hospitalized and a cousin of the two brothers died with the virus.

Outbreaks have also erupted in other impoverished and immigrant communities in rural Florida, such as Indian town, a small community with a large population of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants northwest of West Palm Beach, and Belle Glade, a predominantly black town south of Lake Okeechobee.

Efforts to conduct broad local testing in Immokalee did not begin in earnest until early May, just when officials began lifting restrictions statewide to restart the economy. It wasn’t for lack of trying: The nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers had requested tests in March, at the same time authorities had set up mass testing sites elsewhere in the state.

With no response from the state, the coalition contacted international aid group Doctors Without Borders, which sent a COVID-19 response team in April. Team members found that farmworkers were traveling in crowded buses and had no easy access to testing. Some drove 45 minutes to get tested in Fort Myers and Naples.

“They are in high volume areas in trailers with multiple people and that puts them at a higher risk for spreading the disease easily,” said Dr. Adi Nadimpalli, who coordinated the group’s arrival in Florida.

Dr. Seth Holmes, a physician and medical anthropologist at UC Berkeley who was volunteering at testing sites in Immokalee, said it has been evident since early May that the virus was “spreading like wildfire. There was a lack of contact tracing — identifying the people with whom an infected person has been in contact — and overcrowded living conditions were likely contributing to the spread, he said.

Holmes was critical of the state for not starting mass testing sooner — and of the way it eventually began: He noted that vehicles with flashing lights sat at the entrance to the first testing site, scaring away some farmworkers who do not have legal permission to be in the country.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially recommended testing the elderly and people who were symptomatic, and that agricultural communities “fell through the cracks” based on that criteria. The governor also said the farmworkers were less likely to go to the drive throughand walk up sites.

“There’s different reasons why they would have been probably a little shy about doing that,” he said at a news conference Friday.

As part of its outreach to the community, Doctors Without Borders set up mobile clinics in the evenings and on weekends and called in team members who speak Spanish and Haitian Creole. Kristine Hollingsworth, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department in Collier County, said the state hired people from the community to conduct outreach and has been been broadcasting public service announcements from car loudspeakers in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Mam, an ancient Maya language.

DeSantis said Florida officials are in talks with other states as farmworkers start migrating to fields farther north, from Georgia to Tennessee to New Jersey.

On Monday, there were signs of progress in Immokalee: At the town’s health department offices, truck drivers dropped off groups of landscapers and construction workers who followed a path bordered with yellow caution tape to get tested for the virus. Others waited outside for proof of their positive results so they could show bosses and ask for sick pay.

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26 Comments

  1. Reply

    Thanks for the update

  2. Reply

    Good to know

  3. Reply

    Amazing

  4. Reply

    Nice information

  5. Reply

    Thanks for sharing

  6. Reply

    Interesting

  7. Reply

    Nawa

  8. Reply

    This is really good and interesting to know

  9. Reply

    Impressive

  10. Reply

    Nice
    Thanks for sharing

  11. Reply

    Good article

  12. Reply

    This is serious

  13. Reply

    Good article

  14. Reply

    good one

  15. Reply

    Cool

  16. Reply

    Thanks jumboearn for this platform

  17. Reply

    I think they should go on lockdown then government should share even if it’s 2 square meal to everybody especially the poor

  18. Profile photo ofItz Kvng Twitch

    Reply

    Very interesting

  19. Reply

    Good to know

  20. Reply

    Good to know

  21. Profile photo ofKreator

    Reply

    Nice Piece

  22. Reply

    It’s really a pity that immigrants in Florida would suffer being more exposed to this pandemic

  23. Reply

    Good to know
    Nice one

  24. Reply

    Nice exposure

  25. Reply

    Nice exposure

  26. Reply

    Nice

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