HANCOCK — Public health officials are investigating an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers at Hancock Foods, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a briefing on Tuesday.
There have been five cases among workers, said Dr. Shah, “Identified as part of a proactive series of testing measures undertaken at the facility to identify cases.”
Hancock Foods is a blueberry processing plant on Wyman Road, which is located off Washington Junction Road near the Ellsworth-Hancock town line.
“Additional testing is underway for workers associated with Hancock Foods,” said Dr. Shah.
According to tax records and previous reporting in The American, the plant is owned by Allen’s Blueberries. The American reported in 2016 that the company planned to build a 13-room dormitory to house 52 people on Simmons Pond Road near the plant. The housing was to have men on one side and women on the other, with separate bathrooms and communal dining and kitchen spaces.
The American was unable to immediately reach Allen’s for comment on the COVID-19 cases.
This is the beginning of the busiest season for blueberry growers, with the harvest starting now and lasting up to Labor Day.
Between 30 and 40 percent of the Allen’s blueberry crop is harvested by hand-rakers over four weeks beginning in August, said Simeon Allen in an interview this spring, when the company was worried about whether its workers would even be able to arrive in time for harvest.
“We usually bring in about 40 migrant workers, here on work visas; they travel up and down the Eastern Seaboard, starting with crops in Florida,” Allen said.
Allen said this spring that the company planned to implement “some social distancing and sanitary procedures and requirements for our workers.”
But many farms are simply not set up to allow individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart. Migrant workers stay in bunkhouses where two to three people share a room, and in larger dormitories where many more people share a larger space. Farmers are being asked to reconfigure them, but that’s not a viable option in most cases, especially with such short notice.
“It’s not possible,” said Jorge Acero, director of labor outreach and education for the Maine Department of Labor. “Their bunkhouses are fixed in such a way that there’s no way to separate them.”