Emergency order presents challenges to growers, organizations

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — On Monday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order requiring COVID-19 testing for both agricultural and food processing employees.

“In recent weeks, there have been 11 identified outbreaks in farms and food processing plants in Michigan,” said public information officer for MDHHS, Lynn Sutfin. “In addition, Latinos are 5 percent of Michigan’s population, but represent 11 percent of COVID-19 cases in which the individual’s ethnicity is identified.”

In the emergency order, MDHHS director Robert Gordon said, “[Monday’s] order will help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in communities across Michigan and reduce the pandemic’s disparate impact on Latinos.”

According to Bob Wheaton, public information officer for MDHHS, “As of 2019, there were 97 [migrant] camps licensed in Berrien County and 11 camps licensed in Cass County. The capacity of the camps in both counties was approximately 3,600 to 4,000.”

For growers and employers in Michigan’s fruit belt, the emergency order could present a few hurdles.

Organizations and entities like the Berrien County Health Department have been actively working with the migrant populations and the employers/growers since April.

“We have been working very closely with our federally qualified health center, InterCare Community Health Network, here in Berrien County,” said Gillian Conrad, communications manager with the BCHD. “They have a very robust migrant housing program in which, in non-COVID-19 times, they have been performing health screenings for any agricultural employees that arrive here.”

Conrad said the health department and partner organizations worked diligently to test, educate and provide resources for the workers and growers.

“Anytime you have congregant living situations, there’s a potential for spread of infectious disease,” Conrad said.

The efforts by InterCare and the health department have been ongoing for months.

“We’re getting to the end of the season already,” Conrad said. “It’s a little bit later in the game for this emergency order to come out.”

The order lays out several requirements, including migrant housing camp operators to provide a baseline COVID-19 test for all residents 18 years old and over, testing all new residents to the camp within 48 hours of arriving, and having new arrivals live in separate housing initially for 14 days, where they will require a second test 10 to 14 days after arriving to the camp. A COVID-19 test is required to be performed for any resident with symptoms or exposure.

The order also laid out similar testing requirements for migrant and seasonal workers in meat, poultry and egg processing facilities, as well as greenhouses with more than 20 employees onsite at once. These employees are also required to have the baseline COVID-19 testing for all workers, testing of all new workers prior to in-person work and testing for any workers with symptoms or exposure to COVID-19.

“We feel really good about our existing process,” Conrad said. “Certainly, the goal of this emergency order is to do just that, to really control any potential outbreaks before they happen.”

Certain challenges and questions still remain for agencies who will be expected to work to enact these measures.

“There’s definitely some logistics and thinking through the feasibility and the logistics in making this order happen,” Conrad said. “Just a few examples, putting the burden on growers and employers to figure out the whole process of getting their workers tested is not as easy a calling a lab. It’s not that easy.”

Commercials labs are already inundated with tests, Conrad said. The turnaround time has been growing as testing has increased. Ensuring workers are not losing out on 14 days of wages during a quarantine period is another challenge the health department and partner organizations hope to figure out, between themselves, the state and the growers.

“We don’t want to see any of it have a negative impact on our growers, our migrant workers that are here, or our local economy,” Conrad said. “Here in Berrien County, agriculture is very much a part of our critical infrastructure.”

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