On May 1, a total of five people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Upper Pittsgrove Township, a small farming community in Salem County. A week later, that number exploded when it was reported that 59 migrant workers at a local farm — more than half of its seasonal labor force — had been infected.
This disquieting development arrives as New Jersey is still struggling to contain coronavirus outbreaks in the state’s nursing homes and prisons. It also comes as the state was preparing to roll out an aggressive testing program for migrant farmworkers, in which the state Department of Health will partner with local federally qualified health centers with the aim of getting all migrant workers tested. A large conference call with health department officials, farmers and other stakeholders to discuss the strategy is also scheduled for today.
The fact that this spike in cases comes before the testing campaign has begun raises the larger canary-coal-mine question of how many other migrant workers may be infected in South Jersey.
“Leaders of the state of New Jersey have been working to develop guidelines for the protection of farmworkers, but this process has not happened as quickly as was needed,” said Jessica Culley, general coordinator of CATA, an immigrant advocacy group that’s closely monitoring New Jersey’s migrant communities. Culley also said she has been informed of additional workers infected on other farms in South Jersey, but would not elaborate.
‘A potential crisis’
“Now there is a growing number of farmworkers diagnosed with COVID-19 and a potential crisis on our hands,” she said. “Swift action must be taken by all partners involved to ensure that a massive testing program can be put into place quickly and not rolled out over the next several months.”
DOH officials would not identify the Salem County farm “due to privacy reasons,” nor would Upper Pittsgrove Mayor Jack Cimprich, who said he had spoken to the farmer. The mayor said he believes the situation is contained to the farm property, though he was under the impression that only 20 to 25 workers had contracted the virus. Cimprich also said he was informed that only two of them were displaying serious symptoms, though he did not know if they had been hospitalized.
Cimprich said there are a total of about 80 to 100 laborers, predominately men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, at the farm. He did not know how many are recent arrivals. Neither he nor Salem County Health Director June Sieber said they knew how the farmer was isolating the infected workers from the rest in the camp dormitories, dining hall and fields. “I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if it hasn’t spread to the whole group,” he added. “I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”
“The (DOH) provided the Salem Health Department with CDC’s recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting, implementing safety practices for workers who may have been exposed at the site, and guidance for shared or congregate housing,” DOH spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said. “The Salem Health Department is the lead and is working with the farm directly.”
Reports of infections rise quickly
News of the infections was revealed Wednesday by State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, who said there were “several” migrant workers in Salem County who had tested positive. On Wednesday, Sieber said she believed the total to be around 20, and that she did not know the identity of the farm. But on Friday, Kearney said that the “Salem Health Department informed the New Jersey Department of Health of cases at a farm in their county” — and the number of infected, originally reported as “several,” was actually 59.
Phone messages left with Sieber over the weekend for clarification were not returned, nor would Stacy Pennington, the county’s public information officer, be available until Monday.
“I am concerned,” Cimprich said Saturday, “but at the same token, I realize how fortunate we are that we are in a rural area where we are safer than someone living in the city.” Upper Pittsgrove covers 40 square miles, with a population of about 3,400.
One of the federally qualified health centers is the Southern Jersey Family Medical Center (SJFMC), which starting today will launch testing of farmworkers in Gloucester and Salem counties, where there are an estimated 1,600 laborers. They will be erecting tents at various farms and also dispatching mobile testing vans. In June, they will move to Atlantic County, where a much larger contingent of workers will arrive to harvest blueberries.
“After working with farmers and farmworkers for over 40 years, we have established good working relationships and do our best to help stop the spread of COVID-19 amongst our farmworkers,” said SJFMC CEO Linda Y. Flake. “We started as a migrant health center and are committed to improving the health of the farmworker population. It’s a part of our mission and remains a priority.”