COVID-19 was declared a pandemic just as the spring growing season kicked off in North Carolina. Agriculture is already one of the nation’s most hazardous industries, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, with high rates of fatal and nonfatal injuries. Now a novel infectious disease has added a new degree of vulnerability to farmworkers.
As the public was being told to practice social distancing, thousands of farmworkers were arriving to produce and pack fruits, vegetables and other crops. Some of our most essential workers live in cramped housing, travel to and from work sites in crowded vehicles and must work side-by-side.
It took a complex network of partnerships to help farm operators keep their workers safe and to empower the workers to also protect each other. One of the biggest challenges was addressing the shortage of personal protective equipment like masks, not just to slow the spread of COVID-19 but to meet federal regulations related to pesticide application. Much of this necessary equipment had been stockpiled and diverted for health care providers and first responders.
NC State Extension’s Farmworker Health and Safety Education Program, the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, and state and local agencies were some of the key players in securing and distributing supplies, in addition to providing education vital to helping farmworkers understand and reduce their risk of exposure. The Agromedicine Institute worked to secure supplies like gloves, Tyvek suits, masks and face coverings, and secured donations and grant funding for supplies.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) delivered more than 900,000 masks and other infection control supplies, including hand sanitizer and masks for home use, to 101 Extension centers throughout the state for distribution. Extension worked with DHHS to have instructional and educational inserts (in English and Spanish) printed and included for each mask delivered. Extension further worked with the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), the N.C. Department of Labor and the Agromedicine Institute to help expedite delivery of the supplies and make the farming community aware of them.
Another challenge was delivering programming and training amid social distancing protocols. Extension’s Farmworker Health and Safety Education Program produced and distributed Spanish language videos with basic information for farmworkers about the virus and safety issues. In-person health and safety training was still necessary in many instances, including education about pesticide safety, heat stress and green tobacco sickness.
Those Farmworker Health and Safety Education Program sessions were adapted to also include relevant, up-to-date safety information about COVID-19. There were 45 training sessions with 937 farmworkers, 14 growers and six farm labor contractors.
The farmworker program reached out to build connectivity with other groups and organizations that provide support and services to farmworkers through many mediums—including drive-through events and resource fairs. Some of these included the Masks4Farmworkers of NC, faith-based organizations and the North Carolina Community Health Center Association. The program helped distribute coordination of 42 pallets of donated goods for farmworkers and their families, including diapers, medical and sanitation supplies.
As the rollout of vaccines for COVID-19 continues, Extension’s role in farmworker health during the pandemic continues to grow. Extension will work with NCDA&CS, DHHS and other partners to provide education and facilitate vaccinations among farmworker populations.