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Editorial: Pandemic threatens our food supply

Editorial Board • Jun 8, 2020 at 9:00 PM

Northeast Tennessee’s largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases occurred because of a failure to regularly test farm workers, which has shut down one the region’s most successful operations.

Scott Strawberry & Tomato Farms Inc. was founded in 1959 by Wayne Scott, a high school agriculture teacher. Sons Steve and David earned degrees in horticulture and agriculture and joined their parents in operating the business.

Thirty-eight employees are in isolation and one is hospitalized after they tested positive for the coronavirus. As a result, the business closed its operations, including its market in Unicoi and 10 well-known retail strawberry stands across the region.

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office, said the first case was identified when an employee began showing symptoms. Health office personnel worked with Scott Farms to test all remaining workers and found widespread infection. Of the 39 who tested positive, Kirschke said most were not symptomatic.

“We’ve been concerned for a while about farm workers in general and the potential for outbreaks among them,” he said. “Because of their situation in general, with travel, they work in close proximity and their close living conditions.”

It’s a significant problem right as harvesting is underway. Another farm in Tennessee distributed COVID-19 tests to all of its workers after an employee came down with the virus, and it turned out that every single one of its roughly 200 employees was infected. At Henderson Farms in Evansville, Tennessee, the employees are now all in isolation at the farm, where they live and work.

It’s the latest pandemic threat to our food supply. Farm workers are getting sick and spreading the illness just as the U.S. heads into the peak of the produce season as more than half a million seasonal employees move among farms across the country and get housed together in cramped bunkhouse-style dormitories.

As with the meat industry, produce shortages will result if mass numbers of workers come down with the virus. There are as many as 2.7 million hired farm workers in the United States, including migrant, seasonal, year-round and guest-program workers.

Dr. Kirschke said Scott Farms’ employees arrived in the area more than a month ago, and it likely won’t be possible to determine the source of the outbreak. Kirschke said his office is still investigating to trace the employees’ contacts. Most lived on the farm, although some lived with family members in the surrounding community, he said.

Scott Farms plans to reopen in several weeks after its facilities and equipment are sanitized. Employees will receive daily clinical screenings, temperature checks before each shift, face masks and will observe social distancing measures. But Unicoi officials canceled the June 2 opening of the Farmers Market and Community Yard Sale. The market likely won’t open for at least three weeks.

To prevent infections in the workplace, Kirschke advised employers to monitor employees daily for symptoms and to not let sick employees work. That’s advice that other producers in the region should heed.

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