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COVID-19 Response in Immokalee: More Questions Than Answers


As all levels of government struggle to find the best way to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, response plans in the rural Collier County community of Immokalee are still in an incubation period.

During a conference call on Wednesday with local leaders, Department of Health Collier, and Immokalee-based nonprofits, there were a lot of questions but few answers. Immokalee is a town with no hospital beds, people living in cramped conditions, and a large workforce who can’t work remotely. Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers asked a piercing question to county leaders.

“When the amount of people who are sick—and  seriously sick—in  Immokalee starts to spike what are we going to do? What is the plan for Immokalee when we spike?”

Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services Director Dan Summers said there wasn’t a timeline in place yet.

“But what I can say is as we get direction from DOH trying to  evaluate those needs, that will certainly drive the timeline,” Summers said. “You know, we’re doing all these things to start looking at identifying options, we’re under a state of emergency and under that state of emergency, what takes days in government we can do in hours, so I think we’re well positioned as we go through that review.”

Immokalee Division Director for DOH-Collier Mark Lemke said a call center has been set up by the county to screen those who may have COVID-19. The screening criteria are the same as they are statewide: close contact with a COVID-19 positive case, travel to a widespread area, 65 years of age or older,  immune compromised, or symptomatic health care workers or first responders with direct contact.

Dawn Montecalvo, president of the Guadalupe Center said the criteria detailed by DOH would not be relevant to those living in Immokalee.

“My concern is the criteria that you’ve shared in the process most of the people in our community will  not be able  to go through that or meet it, because they don’t know if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive,” Montecalvo said.

Montecalvo expressed a necessity to bring resources to deal with a potential outbreak to Immokalee.

“The Immokalee community, they don’t come out and ask for help we need to bring the resources to them,” Montecalvo said. “Because as we learned after Hurricane Irma, people didn’t come out and say ‘hey my house was damaged,’ we had to go to them and I think the county sometimes loses focus on that. Having somebody from Immokalee call the [DOH collier number] and fill out a two-page survey they’re not going to do it, they are just going to keep working and they are going to get sicker.”

Lemke said DOH Collier has been in contact with local growers to provide prevention advice, such as sanitizing buses that take farmworkers to fields and directing employees to wash hands before boarding and upon exiting.  

Many agricultural workers and families in Immokalee live in homes and trailers with five or more people. Several nonprofit leaders asked about measures to be taken to isolate people who test positive.

Dan Summers said isolation options are currently being reviewed statewide.

“What I can tell  you is that we’re looking well into the future in terms of what those options are and we’ve been on that track for Immokalee for a couple of days,” Summers said. “Part of this really relies on the direction we get from [State Department of Health] epidemiology and what individual situations look for.”

State Rep. Byron Donalds was on the call and suggested for those in Immokalee to look at COVID-19 responses in other rural communities in the state, like Belle Glade are doing for guidance moving forward.

Commissioner William McDaniel, who represents Immokalee’s district was not on the call to answer questions brought by community leaders and has not responded to several WGCU interview requests.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.