There is concern about seasonal or migrant farm workers as a vector for COVID-19 infections, but testing of the population so far has found the percent positive to be about 16% — similar to that of the general public getting tested — state officials said this week.
The highest rates of farmworker infection have been found in Salem and Gloucester counties, with lower rates in Cumberland and none testing positive in small samples in Ocean and Monmouth counties.
Atlantic County testing has not yet begun, but will start soon, according to the state.
By the time many migrant workers get to New Jersey, after working harvests in more southern states, they will already be well trained in social distancing and mask wearing, said blueberry farmer Denny Doyle.
The blueberry harvest will start about June 14, Doyle said, but he has been in contact with southern farmers and feels confident the pickers will arrive ready to follow CDC guidelines.
The state also issued guidance this week for farm owners on working conditions, testing and treatment procedures to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 among farm workers, who often are transitory and live in crowded, shared-living environments.
On Thursday, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said 595 seasonal farm workers had been tested on 16 farms, with 69 positives, at Gov. Phil Murphy’s Thursday news conference. She said the state is coordinating with four federally qualified health centers in testing on the farms.
By Friday the number had increased to 921 tested, according to a department of health spokesperson. Of those, 513 were tested on five farms in Cumberland County, and 31 tested positive; 195 were tested at five Salem County farms, and 59 tested positive; 172 were tested at four Gloucester County farms, with 56 testing positive; 27 were tested at two Ocean County farms, with none positive; and 14 were tested at two Monmouth County farms, with none positive.
That’s a positive rate of 16%, compared to about 14% of all those tested statewide this week, according to the state Department of Health.
The current testing is baseline testing, the health department spokesperson said. A retesting plan will be developed depending on the results.
Protecting the health of seasonal and migrant farm workers from COVID-19 is “not just a South reality, but is overwhelmingly a South Jersey reality,” said Murphy at the Thursday news conference.
Doyle, who is also chairman of the New Jersey Blueberry Advisory Council and heads up the Good Practices Committee for the national High Bush Council, said he is optimistic that blueberry pickers will arrive well trained and ready to follow health guidelines to prevent viral spread.
“Florida has finished their harvest, and got through without any major incidents. Georgia is picking now and doing fine. North Carolina has started,” Doyle said. “So, we’ve had a chance to see how the other states handled this.”
New Jersey’s blueberry pickers come from Georgia and North Carolina predominantly, Doyle said. “Everybody’s been doing what the CDC wants us to do.”
He said blueberry growers are in constant communication with each other about the issue through online meetings.
But State Senate President Steve Sweeney said Tuesday during a Press of Atlantic City editorial board meeting that he is concerned about high rates in Salem and Gloucester counties.
“One farm in Salem County had more than 50% positive,” Sweeney said. “These are people handling our produce — living in quarters on top of each other. That’s not conducive for safety.”
The state guidance to farm owners included information on social distancing, screening and education to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Persichilli said.
They include requiring social distancing during work, in transportation and in farmer-provided housing. And those who are ill are to be given separate housing and kept away from other workers.
She said the education would include emphasizing the need to wear a mask at all times, and proper hand washing and disinfection techniques.
Persichilli also said the state has bed spaces set aside for seasonal workers who need to isolate.
The guidance was created as a joint effort between the state Departments of Health, Agriculture, and Labor and Workforce Development, according to Murphy’s office.
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