ELLSWORTH — The number of cases of COVID-19 among blueberry workers rose to 23 on Tuesday, after the state announced an investigation into an outbreak at Wyman’s in Milbridge. It was the third cluster of cases among blueberry workers announced within a week, all at different facilities.
There have been four cases of COVID-19 detected among workers at Wyman’s in Milbridge, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on Tuesday. The number of cases at Hancock Foods in Hancock had risen to 10 on Tuesday; there were also nine cases among workers at Merrill Blueberry as of Tuesday.
Shah said in each instance, workers were tested before they began work in any factory or field and everyone who has either tested positive or come into close contact with someone who did is now in quarantine at an undisclosed location in Bangor.
Wyman’s was due to finish a round of testing of 170 staff on Tuesday, said Shah.
“Wyman’s is working very closely with our colleagues and partners at Maine Mobile Health to undertake widespread proactive testing of arriving workers,” said Shah.
Many seasonal workers list Maine as their state of residence while they are here, which is why workers coming from elsewhere may be listed in case counts in Maine, said Shah. A total of 36 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Hancock County as of Aug. 5, with 12 cases (all confirmed) in Washington County.
Those who work in migrant health and in the blueberry industry say the cases are being detected precisely because the system is working.
“Because we have been proactive and are testing laborers as they come into the state, we’re finding positive detection before folks even go to work,” said Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.
Tests are being turned around “very quickly,” said Venturini, “two or three days at the most.”
Lisa Tapert, CEO of Maine Mobile Health, an organization that provides health care to migrant workers and has been testing those who arrive, said she believes the group is prepared for the harvest season, at least in terms of testing.
“We have gotten what we need from the state for COVID testing,” said Tapert. “We’re in collaboration with Maine CDC on a minute-by-minute basis and with a number of partners — both state and local partners — to ensure that anybody that we test who tests positive is safe and is protected themselves and is in quarantine.”
Agricultural workers have been deemed “essential,” meaning they are not under mandate to follow the same quarantine and testing guidelines as other visitors to Maine. But guidelines developed to keep workers safe have recommended testing or a two-week quarantine for workers.
“It’s recommended, but growers have taken it very seriously,” Tapert said.
Workers often make their way up the coast following crops as they ripen from Florida to Maine and into the Midwest. There’s a high degree of risk of getting sick built into their jobs — riding buses for long periods, working long hours in close quarters, sleeping in crowded bunkhouses.
“Just by default of being a farmworker and being a migrant worker they’re vulnerable,” said Jorge Acero, director of labor outreach and education for the Maine Department of Labor. “They’re low-income, they have to travel to find work.”
And public health officials in other states have raised concerns that officials elsewhere, such as Florida, took too long to implement testing and prevention measures among migrant workers.
“We were concerned that there had been no testing done among that population,” Jean Stowell, a nurse and the head of the U.S. COVID-19 response for Doctors without Borders, told the Miami Herald in mid-June. Doctors Without Borders, an international group that usually works in countries in war or crisis, set up testing sites to aid farmworkers in Florida in May.
“We saw a 37 percent positivity rate,” Stowell told the paper, adding that only about 225 migrant farm workers were tested. By comparison, Florida’s statewide positive rate ranged from 4 percent to 8 percent at that time.
Officials in Maine, however, have stressed that they have been preparing since March, including advocating for testing guidelines to be expanded to agricultural workers, said Venturini.
“The cases that we’re catching are an example of a system that is working as it’s supposed to work,” he said.
Having so many workers isolated during a short growing season, however, could worsen the labor shortage agricultural producers have been struggling with in recent years. All of the workers (roughly 40) who arrived on a bus at Hancock Foods last week are now quarantined in Bangor after several tests came back positive.
“I think agricultural labor is a challenge for the state of Maine, period,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Food & Rural Resources. “We face an uphill battle trying to find local workers for a host of different reasons and that’s why migrant and seasonal workers are so important.”
Many migrant workers had already decided not to travel due to the pandemic, said McBrady. Where roughly between 1,500 and 2,000 came for the harvest in 2017, that figure might drop to 1,000 people or fewer, said McBrady (those figures are for all industries, not just blueberries). The federal agricultural census, last undertaken in 2017, shows that a total of 441 migrant workers arrived in Hancock County to help with the harvest that year, while 701 came to Washington County.
Migrant workers, said Acero, are also “aging out.”
“The migrant worker doesn’t want to pass his or her job to his or her children,” he added. “The goal of a migrant farmworker is to work really, really hard to educate their children … and give them the opportunity to go to school, find another career.”
And locals have not been filling those jobs at the rate the producers have hoped. “People don’t want this kind of work anymore,” said Acero. “Even though it’s good work, people just aren’t seeking this out.”
The state launched an initiative in June called FarmingForME aimed at connecting potential workers with employers: https://www.maine.gov/labor/farmingforme/ and https://www.maine.gov/dacf/ard/farmlabor/farmingforme/. There have been around 350 hits on each of the two sites, said Yvette Meunier, promotional coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF), although it’s difficult to tell how many of those have resulted in workers being hired.
While it’s still too early to tell how (and if) the pandemic will affect yield, Acero said the crop this year was looking to be a good one.
“It wasn’t going to be a bumper crop,” he said, but, “It is a good crop.”