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Coronavirus Testing Remains A Problem For Farmworkers, Meatpackers


The rollout of coronavirus vaccines offers a light at the end of the tunnel, but this pandemic is far from over. In many places, testing for the coronavirus is still a problem, even for essential workers in sectors like agriculture and meatpacking. Side Effects Public Media's Christine Herman has been looking into this problem and what might help.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: Illinois is a top producer of corn and soybeans with more than 20 million acres devoted to just those two crops. To make it all happen, the state relies on about 20,000 farm workers, some who travel here for seasonal work and others who call Illinois home. And the coronavirus has battered their communities particularly hard.

Thirty-five-year-old Sarai has lived in central Illinois for more than a decade. Because she's undocumented, she asked we not use her last name.

SARAI: (Speaking Spanish).

HERMAN: Sarai says being a farm worker is the most beautiful thing. But she hasn't been in the fields lately because she's been focused on getting three kids through virtual schooling. A few months ago, Sarai thought she might have been exposed and wanted to get a coronavirus test. The nearest testing site was in the next town over, but there's no public transportation, and she doesn't have a car.

SARAI: (Speaking Spanish).

HERMAN: Sarai says she borrowed a car from a friend and got her test, which was negative. But she thinks the transportation issue probably prevents other agricultural workers from getting tested. And the need has been great. Large outbreaks linked to farms and meat plants have resulted in thousands of U.S. workers falling sick and at least several hundred deaths.

In the town of Rantoul, the virus raced through a meat plant and a hotel that houses migrant farm workers. Rantoul is not far from Urbana-Champaign, where the University of Illinois built its own robust testing program on campus. That contrast bothered anthropology professor Gilberto Rosas.

GILBERTO ROSAS: We can walk down two flights of stairs, go out the back door, and we can get testing, whereas these people who are at the forefront - who work in the fields, who work in the plants - they lack that kind of access.

HERMAN: Rosas and his colleagues were already researching why the food industry was being hit so hard by the virus. They decided to work with local clinics to offer coronavirus testing in Rantoul.

ROSAS: We want to both unearth the inequalities, but also mitigate them as well.

HERMAN: They advertise in English and Spanish and have tried to boost turnout by tapping into their long-standing ties to the local communities of immigrants and farm workers. During a recent testing event in Rantoul, Rosas was there to help, covered head to toe in protective gear. Clinic staff had set up in a parking lot. Clotilde Cuevas, who's 68, arrived to get a test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CLOTILDE CUEVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

HERMAN: A promising start - but in the end, only 15 people showed up. Low turnout like that is disappointing, but not surprising to farmworker advocates like Diana Tellefson Torres.

DIANA TELLEFSON TORRES: We're talking about low-wage workers. Every penny counts.

HERMAN: Tellefson Torres leads the United Farm Workers Foundation based in California. She says agricultural workers might not want to know if they're positive because they can't afford to quarantine for two weeks.

TELLEFSON TORRES: When you have to worry about putting food on your own table for your family, sometimes that is the focus because there isn't another option.

HERMAN: And she says getting tested is even more fraught for agricultural workers who are undocumented. After years of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from the Trump administration, there's a huge lack of trust and a real fear of deportation. So building trust is critically important, Tellefson Torres says, not just to get people to show up for testing, but also for the vaccine.

TELLEFSON TORRES: There is much hesitation from farmworkers when they hear that the employer might make them take this vaccine that they don't really comprehend or understand. So a lot of outreach and education needs to be done.

HERMAN: In Illinois, food and agriculture workers are now eligible for the vaccine. But Sarai, the farmworker here, says she's not planning to get it.

SARAI: (Speaking Spanish).

HERMAN: She's read too much online about people having severe reactions. But Sarai says if someone she trusted showed her evidence the vaccine is safe, then she might change her mind.

For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman in Urbana, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christine Herman
Dana Cronin
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