HAMMONTON — On Thursday inside Tales of the Olive, one of the many specialty stores that line the downtown drag of Bellevue Avenue, manager Kelbi Brown said she just learned about an increase in COVID-19 cases in town while talking with family.
“We’re concerned, of course,” Brown said, “but overall, I think everyone has been taking really good steps during this pandemic.”
Nearby, Frank Vitrano donned a mask as he prepared lunch orders inside his bagel shop. He had also heard about the recent spike in positive cases in town, so was taking some extra precautions, like going to the supermarket early in the morning to avoid contact with too many people.
Otherwise, he was following all the previously recommended safety procedures to avoid infection.
“Being alert and doing everything we’re supposed to,” Vitrano said.
The small town on the western end of the county added 16 new positives Friday, while no other town in the county added more than three.
As of Friday, Hammonton had a cumulative total of 563 positive cases, the highest by far in Atlantic County, according to the county health department. Atlantic City was next at 364.
The numbers started shooting up this month, as the state began testing seasonal farm workers in Atlantic County, said Mayor Steve DiDonato.
“It appears right now they are (mostly) asymptomatic. But at the same time, you worry,” DiDonato said. “I’m not getting a lot of calls (from concerned residents), but it’s on their radar. They are absolutely concerned for their own safety and for the workers.”
Annel Pardo, of Hammonton, said she is concerned and tries to do all her errands during the day and when it’s sunny — when the farm workers are not at local stores.
“I have kids, and we need to be safe,” Pardo said. “We worry about that.”
As of Thursday, 3,554 seasonal farm workers statewide have been tested with a positivity rate of 5.3%, according to state Department of Health spokeswoman Nancy Kearney. The state’s overall positivity rate was about 1.5% in recent testing.
The testing is being done by Federally Qualified Health Centers, she said, and results for some others are pending, Kearney said. She could not provide a breakout of test results by county or farm.
Farm workers have been tested in Atlantic, Burlington, Cumberland, Ocean, Gloucester, Salem, Sussex, Monmouth, Warren, Somerset and Hunterdon counties, she said.
Fourteen seasonal farm workers from Hammonton who needed to quarantine did so at the Field Medical Station set up by the state at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Kearney said in an email response to questions.
They have since been discharged.
“Whenever you are testing more ... you are going to see some uptick,” said Denny Doyle, a longtime blueberry farmer who is on the New Jersey Blueberry Council. “I think we’re moving along pretty well with the situation. Everybody I know of is doing CDC requirements like social distancing, masks and shields.”
As peak blueberry season is underway, Doyle said the crop will not be affected, noting good quality and size, and the farmers will not be prevented from harvesting it by the virus.
“Absolutely, COVID is making it harder,” Doyle said. “It was a difficult situation without the virus,” he said of ongoing problems getting enough labor experienced in the intricate art of hand picking blueberries.
In addition to farm workers, Hammonton has two long-term care facilities that also have contributed to the numbers — one facility accounted for 246 cases among residents and staff, and 39 deaths — but new cases have stabilized there, officials said.
DiDonato said county health officials and town officials are watching the numbers very carefully.
“We have tried to ask all residents to be patient, safe and wear masks, in shopping centers especially. (The farm workers) are just trying to make a living, too. They are residents part-time of Hammonton, but are important to the community, too.”