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The new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have interrupted our lives in countless ways. Our coverage details the medical issues surrounding coronavirus -- and the way it's changing the Midwest.

Amid COVID-19 Concerns, Clinics Step Up Testing For Migrant Farmworkers

Courtesy of James Unzicker, CHP of IL
Staff with the Champaign branch of the Community Health Partnership of Illinois have been running outdoor mobile clinics offering free COVID-19 testing and health risk assessments for migrant workers.

Maricel Mendoza is familiar with the work migrant and seasonal farmworkers do. Growing up, her family traveled from Texas to central Illinois every year for her parents’ jobs as contractors with a large seed company. 

“All of my parents’ siblings were migrants, my grandparents were migrants,” Mendoza says. “So it’s just something that was the norm for me.” 

As a teen, she spent several summers out in the fields herself, working alongside crews detasseling corn. The process involves yanking off the pollen-producing top portion of plants to promote cross-breeding with nearby varieties — a critical step for creating hybrid seed corn. 

Mendoza says it’s hard labor.

“You’re working in the rain, you’re working in the mud, you’re working with bugs,” she says. “And you don’t ever have an end time. Once the work is done you go home.” 

Credit Courtesy of James Unzicker, CHP of IL
The Community Health Partnership of Illinois is a federally funded clinic that reaches out to migrant workers to provide primary care services. This year, they're also offering free COVID-19 testing with support from the state health department.

Today, Mendoza directs a small clinic in Champaign, Illinois, that provides basic medical services to hundreds of farmworkers in east-central Illinois. Some live in the area, while many come from southern U.S. states and Mexico to work in the summer and fall. 

This year, in addition to conducting health risk assessments and discussing medical and other needs, the clinic is working with companies and state and local health departments to test migrant farmworkers for COVID-19 upon arrival. The goal is to clamp down on cases before they spread.

There’s a lack of data regarding COVID-19 among the estimated two million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. The National Center for Farmworker Health has compiled reports from media outlets and partner organizations documenting more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 among farmworkers across 15 states, including Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Several workers have died.

Mendoza says news of outbreaks in other areas concerns her, but she hopes that proactive measures will allow Illinois’ farmworkers to be spared as they perform essential work during the pandemic.

‘We knew it was coming’

The clinic Mendoza directs is part of the Community Health Partnership of Illinois, based in Chicago. 

The partnership is a federally qualified health center, among more than 170 others in the U.S. Their work is especially critical right now, says Sylvia Partida, CEO of the Texas-based National Center for Farmworker Health. 

“When the pandemic first started, and we were just beginning to hear information about the impact on farmworkers, we knew it was coming,” Partida says. “You just knew that it was going to get worse and worse and worse.”

Partida’s organization supports community health centers like the Community Health Partnership, which cater to migrant agricultural workers. 

U.S. migrant clinics serve about a million patients a year, according to2018 federal data. About 70% of them live below the federal poverty line and more than 33% lack health insurance, so clinics provide services regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

The vast majority of patients in these clinics are Hispanic or Latino — groups that have been disproportionately hurt by COVID-19, according to CDC data reported by the New York Times

Over the past several weeks, Mendoza says staffers have been traveling the state, setting up outdoor mobile clinics under tents, in parking lots at hotels and other places where workers are being housed.

At first, she worried workers might be hesitant to get tested, since a positive result would mean missing out on work.

“But every COVID-19 testing site we’ve set up that I’ve been at, you’ve seen people willingly come and line up, wanting to get the test done,” she says. “And they have questions and they’re wearing their masks.”

Farmworkers are at increased risk because the nature of the field work can make social distancing difficult, Partida says. Often, workers are paid per acre, and spacing out in the fields can slow productivity. 

Additionally, many workers live in dorm-style housing in apartments and hotels, and travel on crowded buses to and from field sites. 

Credit Courtesy of Sylvia Partida
Sylvia Partida is CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Partida says a lack of a coordinated response between the federal departments of labor and agriculture is to blame for the outbreaks among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. 

“Just like we have seen our health care having to be done ... kind of piecemeal, every state does their own thing, every county does their own thing, every city does their own thing,” Partida says. “The same thing is happening with employers.”

Two large seed companies that responded to questions via email said they’re taking numerous precautions to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2016, said the company is working with the state health department and the Community Health Partnership to provide COVID-19 testing. Bayer offers paid leave for those who need to isolate or quarantine, and the company is taking steps to limit interactions among employees to designated “pods” or small groups, to “help with isolation if an employee becomes ill.”

A spokesperson for Corteva Agriscience, which acquired DuPont Pioneer in 2018, did not say whether workers needing to isolate or quarantine would receive paid leave, stating only that “each situation is managed by a nurse on staff.”

The companies hire contractors, referred to as crew leaders or providers, who are responsible for hiring and housing the hundreds of migrant workers that work in the fields growing seed corn.

Both Bayer and Corteva said their contractors have lowered the occupancy per room and changed travel habits to minimize potential spread of COVID-19. Workers are provided with masks and training on social distancing, sanitization and hygiene guidelines, are required to participate in daily symptom and temperature checks, and have access to nurses on site.

“Safety is our number one priority for everyone,” a Corteva spokesperson said, “which is why we have a team dedicated to reviewing all field activities, identifying areas of concern, and implementing mitigation measures.”

Hoping for the best

Addressing the vulnerability of migrant workers during the pandemic would require a complete overhaul of the nation’s agriculture system, says Partida with the National Center for Farmworker Health.

People expect to have cheap produce, she says, “and the only way we do that is through cheap labor. Now we're in a situation where we don't want interruptions in our food supply. And so that means we're sacrificing individuals that are doing that work.”

Chicago-based attorney Miguel Keberlein-Gutierrrez shares these concerns. For years, he provided legal services to migrant workers in Illinois and says the workers are highly vulnerable. 

“The system has absolutely historically been set up to exploit people,” he says. “People continue to take the jobs because for a lot of them, it’s the only option they actually have.”

Keberlein-Gutierrez worries about the lack of accountability for employers and the inability of overburdened health departments to enforce state and federal guidance.

Mendoza says lately, it’s been taking five days to get test results back from the state’s public health lab. She worries the delay may allow COVID-19 to spread.

“It’s always a concern that we're not doing enough, or don't have enough resources, or what can we do to do better? We're constantly having that conversation,” she says.

Asked how many migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in Champaign County, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said in an email that information is not being collected. 

She said while the health district can’t require COVID-19 testing, they’re working with partners like the Community Health Partnership to offer testing. Pryde said she suggests workers get re-tested “any time there are symptoms, or five days after any potential exposure” and said the companies are responsible for designating housing for those requiring isolation or quarantine.

So far, Mendoza says she’s aware of at least one migrant worker in central Illinois who has tested positive. As detasseling season kicks off, she’s just hoping more workers don’t get sick.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Christine Herman is a reporter at Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman

Christine Herman is the managing editor for Side Effects Public Media