news 5 days ago

Blueberry farms discovered 2 coronavirus outbreaks. They hope their strategy leads to safe harvest.

Bangor Daily News, Maine — Charles Eichacker Bangor Daily News, Maine

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As Maine's wild blueberry growers step into overdrive to rake and process the state's banner fruit over the coming weeks, they are also trying to quickly give coronavirus tests to the migrant workers who come from out-of-state each season to provide the industry with critical manual labor.

By doing so, they hope to quickly identify infections so that the newly arrived workers can isolate long enough to recover and prevent the contagion from spreading to many others, according to Eric Venturini, the executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, a quasi-governmental group that represents the interests of nearly 500 wild blueberry growers and processors.

That testing has already turned up 11 positive cases of the virus between two different blueberry businesses in Hancock County, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Thursday, three workers had tested positive at Merrill Blueberry Farms in Ellsworth, and eight had tested positive at Hancock Foods in the town of Hancock. The Maine CDC classifies an outbreak as any place where at least three people have tested positive.

But those results suggest that the "proactive" approach to identifying cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is "working as it was intended to," according to Venturini.

He said that wild blueberry businesses have spent months working with state and federal health authorities, as well as an organization that offers medical care to migrant farmworkers, to ensure that they are taking the appropriate safety measures while also running an industry that has generated between $17.5 million to $47.2 million in annual revenues in recent years.

"We're testing everyone that's going to work in the wild blueberry industry," Venturini said. "Because the season has just started and the testing has just started, my hope is that we are able to find any positives that exist."

"I'm very confident in the safety protocols and the responsibility that the industry is taking to handle this, in terms of being able to keep our workers and farms safe and yet still get our crops in the freezer to support 485 wild blueberry businesses across the state."

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has praised the work of wild blueberry businesses so far in looking out for the disease. "It's important to note that the results I've mentioned from Tuesday as well as today are the results of proactive testing, not reactive testing," he said on Thursday.

While the volume of new confirmed infections has mostly been falling in Maine since reaching a peak in late May, the virus has surged in many other parts of the country where seasonal farmworkers also spend time throughout the year.

The nation's migrant agricultural laborers -- at least half of whom were born outside the U.S. -- are generally in greater danger of catching the coronavirus because they work in an essential industry where physical distancing is difficult, according to a recent piece in the Conversation from Michael Haedicke, an associate professor of sociology at Drake University who will work at the University of Maine this coming year. Haedicke also identified limited access to health care as another barrier facing those workers.

Maine is the nation's top producer of wild blueberries, with fields that take up 44,000 acres. While they are concentrated Down East, they are spread across all of the state's coastal counties, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Of the 2,000 to 3,000 workers who work in Maine's wild blueberry harvest each summer, Venturini estimated that migrant workers from out-of-state generally make up less than 1,000 of that total, but he added that the numbers fluctuate each year.

While he did not have numbers for this year, he said that some businesses may be hiring fewer workers from out-of-state so that those whom they do hire have more room to physically distance from each other in their bunkhouses.

Blueberry businesses and other groups have been taking other steps to protect workers from the virus and follow state health guidelines, Venturini said. Some of them, for example, are asking workers to do all their labor in small cohorts of around three people so that if one of them ends up testing positive, it's easier to trace their contacts and limit the virus' spread.

Working with the University of Maine, Venturini's group has also provided 800 protective face coverings for workers to wear during this year's harvest.

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