RALEIGH — Coronavirus outbreaks at four produce farms in North Carolina in the midst of strawberry season resulted in 46 positive cases among workers, according to state health officials.
These cases are included in this week’s report on COVID-19 outbreaks in congregate living facilities, such as nursing homes, by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The state began making data on these cases public after pressure from several media outlets across North Carolina.
At least 27 of the cases are listed as “residents” of the farms. Meaning, seasonal immigrants from Mexico who come to work in the United States on a temporary visa and live in housing provided by growers.
For many, the high number of COVID-19 cases isn’t surprising. The nature of farm work, with workers often standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the field, makes it hard to practice social distancing.
There had been concern that food products could potentially transmit the coronavirus, a respiratory disease. But so far, that hasn’t been proven.
The spike in COVID-19 cases has curtailed operations at many strawberry farms during the height of harvesting.
In Greensboro, business had been booming at Rudd Farm on Hicone Road. That was until someone contracted the coronavirus.
On April 25, Rudd Farm posted on its website that after one worker tested positive, several more were infected and the farm had to temporarily shut down.
The “pick-your-own” strawberry farm has resumed its drive-thru service where customers can buy freshly-picked fruit, manager Joan Rudd said.
Harrington & Sons Farm in Sanford posted on their Facebook page on May 30 that they would not grow any strawberries or produce this season. They gave no additional details, and calls to the farm went unanswered.
Porter Farms and Produce in south Raleigh employs 10 immigrant farmworkers with temporary H-2A visas, manager Charity Morris said.
At least six seasonal workers who are hired by a separate farm work temporarily at Porter Farms and live in worker housing for part of the season. Four of them were among those who were quarantined after testing positive in late April.
“We have a total of 14 H-2A workers who were quarantined when they were sick,” Morris said. “(The workers) came here to help us and we value them. And this farm wouldn’t be able to run without them.”
Some workers have already recovered and were authorized by the Wake County Health Department on May 8 to return to work, Morris said.
“It’s a very sensitive situation,” Morris said. “It’s not a food-borne illness so people don’t need to be concerned about the strawberries.”
The North Carolina Farmworkers Project, a health nonprofit, is one of the organizations that have donated food and supplies to ensure they are taken care of as best as possible, Morris said.
The N.C. Farmworkers Project said that the farm cooperated with them to test all workers and farm staff after a worker with symptoms contacted the organization. The farm then arranged for them to be tested at a clinic.
Janeth Tapia, the organization’s health outreach coordinator, has provided health education to them by phone and video calls as they have recovered.
She said the number of farm cases so far has not been as large as she was expecting at this stage of the season, as workers arrive in North Carolina.
“I’m surprised because I thought that by now we were going to have an incredible contagion in farms,” Tapia said. “But we haven’t claimed victory yet, because this is ongoing.”