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Coronavirus Florida: Officials say local farmworkers aren’t to blame for uptick in cases
News-Journal - 6/18/2020
A Lake Worth commissioner pushed back on Gov. Ron DeSantis' contention that migrant farmworkers are to blame for the surge in cases of the deadly coronavirus strain since the state reopened from lockdown.
Lake Worth has a large immigrant community and is one of the hotspots for new cases of COVID-19.
"Some people paint these folks as unsophisticated, and they don't know what is going on and we just need to educate them. I find that condescending," said Omari Hardy.
He said during a recent visit to the Latin market in Lake Worth, for example, the store wouldn't allow anyone in the door without a face mask.
On a day when Florida had its second biggest daily increase ever in COVID cases, Hardy said the real reason for the surge is the state opened up too fast when it didn't meet recommended guidelines.
He also said while other counties are mandating masks in public buildings, Palm Beach County remains on the fence while they wait to take up a measure Tuesday.
"We have been too quick to reopen, and I think we are seeing the consequences for that," Hardy said. "Certain elected officials want to point the finger at everyone but themselves."
So why is Lake Worth a hotspot? Hardy believes it is overcrowding among the working poor who are living together because they can't afford to live anywhere else.
DeSantis said Tuesday that the overcrowding again points to migrant farmworkers. "They're living in really close confines, sometimes multi-generational," he said on Tuesday.
The state's Department of Agriculture has refuted DeSantis' claim, saying "the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended."
When asked Tuesday by a county commissioner whether farmworkers were to blame for the surge in cases, Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County's health director, pointed out that the county does not have as many farmworkers who migrate to other places after the harvest.
"A lot of these people stay here year-round," she said.
In Lake Worth, she said, there are a number of people who do construction work and take long rides to get to Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
"They're doing all kinds of work where they're riding together on buses," she said. "That's the problem. It's what they're doing in large groups."
But Hardy said poor minorities, including Blacks, also live in tight quarters."I don't want to see this immigrant community singled out or maligned for supposedly spreading the virus," he said. "I think people are speculating, but there hasn't been a lot of data."
Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist with Wellington Regional Hospital, said residential overcrowding would also be his first assumption when it comes to Lake Worth and other hotspots, such as Belle Glade.
"When you look at the ZIP codes where the cases are, they seem to be concentrated in areas where there are closer living quarters," he said.
Second highest increase in new cases
Florida has averaged more than 2,000 cases a day for the past week.
The state Wednesday again posted the second-highest increase in cases -- 2,610 -- since the pandemic began. The record-setter came Tuesday at nearly 2,800.
The state now has 82,719 cases and 3,110 deaths with 25 added to the total Wednesday.
Palm Beach County's gain in new cases has averaged more than 250 in the past week, with 210 added Wednesday.
Six more county residents have died, bringing the county total to 457.
Latinos account for 34 percent of coronavirus-related deaths recorded statewide since June 1 and 24 percent of those deaths overall. Hispanics make up about 26 percent of Florida's population.
About 18 percent of Florida residents killed by COVID-19 this month were Black, and 42 percent were white. Black people are about 17 percent of the state's population, and white people, 54 percent.
About 55 percent of the 3,337 new cases recorded since June 1 in Palm Beach County have been in the county's eastern central communities, from Riviera Beach through Lake Worth Beach.
South County, encompassing Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton, accounted for another 21 percent.
This represents a reversal from the start of the pandemic in Palm Beach County, when the lion's share of the people infected lived in the county's southern cities.
'The virus now has food'
Alonso sent up the alarm to the County Commission on Tuesday.
"There is more community spread. The virus now has food out there," Alonso said. "People are not wearing masks."
County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, whose district covers south county, complained to Alonso that quarantine restrictions hurt businesses and employees.
"You've said we want to starve the virus," he said. "What I'm seeing is that we're starving our residents."
Bush said he would be interested in seeing whether social distancing and the wearing of PPE is being adhered to in the ZIP codes with the highest number of cases.
"What it comes down to is people being more lax in certain ZIP codes for whatever reason," he said.
"We all live in the same temperate environment here. So the only difference is the social distancing, how close they are to each other and are they doing common-sense things."
He said he shops at two different Publix supermarkets and "I can tell you there is a huge difference depending on where I am on the mask wearing."
Alonso said one of the biggest increases in positive cases is in people ages in the 25 to 34.
Delray Beach Commissioner Adam Frankel said the laissez-faire attitude among the young can be witnessed on Atlantic Avenue at the beach.
"People are not taking the CDC recommendations of distancing and wearing masks, while the older population certainly is," he said.
While cases among young adults are going up, COVID-19 cases among the elderly, the most vulnerable to the virus, are at the low end of the new cases.
The nursing homes just finished a comprehensive push to test all staffers and all residents --though the resident tests were voluntary.
"You are seeing they are not being exposed, which means the facilities are doing a good job," said Kristen Knapp, spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, which represent some 550 Florida nursing homes.
The next step is to do continuous testing every two weeks of staffers and residents.
"Continuous testing will be much more beneficial because people can have no signs or symptoms and carry the virus," she said.
"We have to be vigilant. We have a very vulnerable population. We are going to be working on this for a long time, frankly probably until we have a cure or a vaccine."
As cases are going up, hospital beds are being filled up. Local hospitals were down to 73 adult ICU beds available across the county as of Wednesday afternoon. That's about 18 percent of the total.
The hospitals say they are not at capacity but do have contingency plans if intensive care unit beds get to capacity.
Health-care workers file complaint
Members of the state's largest healthcare union filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), against St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach.
1119SEIU United Health Workers East say contaminated air is being vented into the hospital's courtyard, which is primarily used by employees.
"The air comes from a "negative pressure" isolation unit inside the hospital designed for patients with respiratory infections or other conditions creating airborne pathogens, such as COVID-19," the union said.
Tenet Hospitals, which owns St. Mary's Medical Center, said the ventilation system was reviewed and approved by the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration on May 27.
"The negative pressure machines have integrated HEPA filters that scrub and clean 99.7% of the contaminants from the air prior to its release," said Shelly Weiss Friedberg, Tenet spokeswoman. "We are not currently using these fans, and they are in place as part of our surge plan in the event our census increases and we need to utilize them."
Palm Beach Post investigations editor Holly Baltz contributed to this story.
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