Emergency order continues in place for agricultural worker testing

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN—An emergency order issued from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Aug. 3 requiring testing of agricultural and food processing employees remains in effect in Michigan.

According to MDHHS, a lawsuit challenging the order requiring COVID-19 testing was denied as of Monday.

“The department’s goal is to save lives during a pandemic that has killed more than 6,300 in Michigan,” said MDHHS director Robert Gordon. “At a time when farms, food processing plants and migrant worker camps face 21 outbreaks, the best way to save lives is to support and test these hard-working employees.”
The emergency order requires employers that operate migrant housing camps to provide one-time, baseline COVID-19 tests for each of its residents over 18 years of age, testing of new residents within 48 hours of their arrival with a separate housing unit for those arriving to isolate in for 14 days. The workers will be required to have a second COVID-19 test within 10-14 days after arrival. The order also requires any resident to be tested who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 or has had an exposure to someone who tests positive.

Velma Hendershott, president and chief executive officer of InterCare Community Health Network, said the order has been “grueling.”

According to Bob Wheaton, public information officer for MDHHS, “As of 2019, there were 97 [migrant worker] 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 [people].”

InterCare serves five counties, including Allegan, Berrien, Kent, Ottawa and Van Buren, and is a federally qualified health center. InterCare is the federally qualified health center identified to do the testing in the region.
Hendershott said InterCare has been working with each of the local health departments, as well as the growers, to ensure they are following both the state and local guidelines and regulations. Her agency has addressed doubt that the state government would pay for the testing.

“The grower had to make a contact with the state, and they were very responsive and would immediately contact the appropriate FQHC, like us, or if it was another one on the east side of the state they would contact them and take the ball from there.”

As of Monday, Hendershott said InterCare had tested around 800 farmworkers, and that over the next 10 to 14 days they had scheduled to test another 1,000 workers from various, area camps. She did not know how many positive COVID-19 cases they had identified at that time, but confirmed no major outbreaks of the virus in local camps.

“Not to say we haven’t had some positives, because we certainly have, but we haven’t had an entire camp, for example, that has had to be quarantined or anything like that,” she said.

Some of the other challenges Hendershott said the agency, growers and farmworkers have encountered in the process have been turnaround times on tests from laboratories and hesitancy from workers to be tested.

“The state has actually been very proactive, in that they have made arrangements if a grower doesn’t have the right kind of isolation,” she said. “If somebody should test positive [for COVID-19], they can bring [the worker] to a nearby motel or other accommodations of isolation. [The state] has made the arrangements to make sure that workers are taken care of from the food and medical perspective. The community action agencies are involved in providing a stipend for lost wages.”

The timing of the emergency order came later in the Michigan growing season than some in the field would have expected. By the beginning of August, some crops were already finished. By the time much of the testing is finalized, workers may be on their way to another location with a longer growing season.

“Some of [the workers] will stay for apples,” Hendershott said. “We are trying to do the best we can to test as many people as we can.”

She said over the past few months, everyone dealing with congregant living situations, including agricultural labor camps, has had to adapt.

“We have all had to learn a lot in a very short amount of time,” she said.

Addressing misinformation, rumors and fear among agricultural, migrant workers is something Hendershott commends her team on doing well.

“We’ve been doing this for decades,” she said. “We are very fortunate that we have a good number of our workforce that works with the migrant workers that are bilingual. We have got good relationships and good rapport [with the workers] for the most part. We try to communicate the best we can to just kind of provide the right information to the growers and to the farmworkers.”

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