Editor’s Note: Kent Sepkowitz is a CNN medical analyst and a physician and infection control expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Recognition of the Covid-19 threat to the food supply and its workers has followed a peculiar sequence – from table to farm.
Attention first turned to those who sell or deliver food and the risks of contact with customers. Next, Covid-19 cases were seen among grocery workers and food distributors, whose vulnerability had been less appreciated until people started to die.
More recently, large outbreaks have been reported among workers in meat processing plants. A Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed after 644 workers got sick. At Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, 130 workers were infected and a union leader died. And a JBS plant in Grand Island, the largest city in Hall County, Nebraska, reported 588 cases in a population of about 50,000. Alarmingly, this outbreak also has spread into local health care facilities and nursing homes.
One final group must now be recognized: farm workers, especially migrants. Spring brings workers to harvest early crops and many have begun to arrive at the farms where they have worked for years.
The result could be trouble. In Singapore, which has run the tightest, most well designed and executed Covid-19 control program in the world, migrant workers have been among those caught up in a large second wave of cases, likely related to their cramped and insufficient housing. Some dormitories in Singapore have 12 to 20 workers in a single room.
Migrant farm workers in the United States – the majority of whom are Latino and too often living in comparably crowded, unsanitary quarters – may similarly end up at the center of the next Covid-19 hot spots. Should that happen, the result may not only be disease and suffering, but also anti-immigrant scorn and blame, even as the problem – unacceptable worker housing – remains unaddressed.
Some groups have sounded the alarm, but the issue has barely registered nationally. A few states with large migrant worker populations, however, are preparing. Oregon and North Dakota have begun to consider appropriate steps aimed at improved housing.
A few weeks ago, even before a spike of 100 cases at a wind power plant in Grand Forks, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, in a statement suggested a response for containing Covid-19.
“Agriculture producers are ramping up for spring’s work and getting ready to get out into their fields,” he said. “Many of these producers rely on H-2A (foreign) workers and workers from other states to fill employment gaps. Producers who have workers arriving from other countries or states should follow proper (containment) procedures upon their arrival.”
Randy Hatzenbuhler, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in Medora, North Dakota, set a higher bar: He stated that any worker coming from out of state for seasonal work would be quarantined for two weeks. And he promised that, “While quarantined, those employees will be paid their normal wage and will have meal delivery available to them.”
This approach may prevent a worker bringing infection into a community but will not prevent spread in overcrowded housing if a single case is introduced. Take, for example, sparsely populated Mountrail County, North Dakota, population 10,545. There, 33 cases of Covid-19 have been diagnosed, for an infection rate of 323 per 100,000, a rate higher than that of St. Louis.
The source of the Mountrail cases is not known. Mountrail County abuts the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, and cases have been diagnosed there as well.
However transmission is occurring, Mountrail County has substantial farmlands. It is difficult to know how many migrant workers may spend time there this season. However, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database, in 2019, 334 farms in Mountrail County received $6.9 million in federal farm subsidies, suggesting many farms with many crops to harvest. The combination of community spread, as is likely occurring in the county, with a seasonal influx of farm workers may lead to a substantial increase in Covid-19 infections.
The problem of inadequate housing for migrant workers is an old and poorly resolved one. In the 1970s, the Department of Justice tried to address the problem but a substantial gap remains.
A report from The Pew Charitable Trusts demonstrated that basic sanitary conditions are often not present. Bedbugs, crowding and shared bathrooms make daily life not only uncomfortable, but – with Covid-19 – potentially fatal.
Migrant farm workers are critical infrastructure workers. Their lack of safe housing is unfortunately in line with recent failures to protect most other critical infrastructure workers.
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Preventable deaths among police officers, health care and transportation workers, as well as among those in the food industry will continue to occur. Many of these deaths occurred because of the unacceptable lack of protective gear or safe work conditions, even after guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on critical worker safety.
This cruel abrogation of the basic social contract should rattle the many people who feel like the government “has their back” as they ready themselves to “reopen” an economy that for now, given the very low testing rates, should remain closed.
Any society that has proven unable or unwilling to protect critical infrastructure personnel surely has no plan to reduce risk for those planning to return to work in states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. People hoping to resume business soon should consider this record of indifference before deciding their next steps.