Florida farmworkers face various health challenges amid pandemic

'The spread of COVID was very sharp among the unvaccinated last year," Dr. Alina Alonso says
Delray Beach farmworkers, March 24, 2021
Posted at 11:32 AM, Aug 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 17:42:56-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A virtual forum was held Tuesday to discuss the health and safety challenges facing Florida farmworkers during the ongoing pandemic.

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The event detailed the difficulties that farmworkers in Florida and the Southeast encounter and the policy solutions needed to protect them.

The Farmworker Association of Florida, the Guatemalan Maya Center and the American Friends Service Committee hosted Tuesday's discussion.

Panelists attending the forum included:

  • Dr. Alina Alonso, the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County
  • Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor at the Nell Woodruff-Hodgson School of Nursing at Emory University
  • Dr. Ruth Martinez of Marsoni Foundation and the Mexican Consulate in Miami
Farmworker health forum, Aug. 24, 2021
Health workers came together to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change on farmworkers in the U.S.

Alonso said farmworkers from other parts of the U.S. are starting to return to South Florida as the agricultural season nears.

She said the spread of COVID-19 within the farm community poses a challenge given their lack of transportation, access to health care and living in crowded spaces.

"Some of the risks that they have that are different from the other population is that many of them drive one to two hours in very crowded buses back and forth to the different farms," Alonso said. "The spread of COVID was very sharp among the unvaccinated last year."

Chicas said the pandemic has brought to the forefront the "stark variations" and protections available to agricultural workers in the U.S.

"Many of these workers do not have health insurance nor can they pay out of pocket for health care," Chicas said. "We see high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and also COVID infections."

The exposure to pesticides, most notably the deadly paraquat herbicide, and climate change were other issues addressed by the panel.

"There could be hundreds of thousands of farmworkers who were exposed to paraquat," said attorney Calvin Warriner. "They know they're sick but do not know why."

Warriner said exposure to paraquat has been tied to Parkinson's disease and is the subject of active, ongoing litigation.

Chicas said the heat the farmworkers endure for long hours can be detrimental to their health.

"Heat-related illness, heatstroke. We've seen how it's been extremely hot. It's been all over the news that it's hot, and we've even had reported fatalities of farmworkers," Chicas said.

Vaccine access

The Guatemalan-Maya Center is working with health agencies to make vaccines accessible to agricultural workers by bringing the vaccines directly to their communities.

Organizers have taken mobile clinics into farmworkers' residences with assistance from the Department of Emergency Management and the health department.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center also has vaccinations available at their location in Lake Worth Beach every Friday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.