Local health center ahead of the curb in fighting coronavirus outbreaks among migrant workers

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ORLEANS COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB)- After discovering COVID-19 clusters traced to seasonal farmworkers, New York State recently announced that the Department of Health and Agriculture & Markets will dispatch mobile testing teams to farms.

But health officials at Oak Orchard Health in Orleans County have been ahead of the game. They’ve successfully managed to prevent any outbreaks among the roughly 1,500 migrant farmworkers that are vital to the county’s farming economy.

“We do reach out and educate not only the farm owners but the farm workers themselves,” said Mary Ann Pettibon chief executive officer at Oak Orchard Health Center. “We go out to the farms and distribute hygiene kits so they have thermometers, alcohol swaps, hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves.”

Pettibon says workers from the center have already been visiting farms bringing preventative care where its needed most. They deliver food to workers when they first come to the country and have to quarantine for 14 days and provide on-site vaccinations and translators that distribute information on how to get healthcare. Health care officials have also purchased self swabbing kits to quickly identify any possible cases providing a much-needed convenience given migrant workers long-work schedules and rural travel distance.

Karen Watt, owner of Watt Farms Country Market in Albion is a board member at Oak Orchard Health. She says migrant workers on her farm had questions before making the trip to harvest this year.

Martin Vaya is one of those workers.

“I’ve been working here for 25 years, this year it was a little different because of COVID.,” Vaya said.

Migrant workers at Watt Farms have been working there for ten plus years coming from Mexica.

Watt said she worked closely with other board members to set up services and provide workers with peace of mind.

“There was no COVID in those countries that the farmworkers typically come from so they were very timid and very concerned about what that would do, so we were able to give them the stability and confidence to come up and that they would be protected.”

Pettibon acknowledges that there are many factors that play into the possibility of outbreaks on farms, from the number of workers to the space available for social distancing. She credits the program’s success to the farm owners and workers do everything they can to stop the spread.

“We can’t do this alone we have to work together. The farm workers and the farm owners themselves, they want their staff to be safe, they want the food supply to be safe, so its really a community joint effort between all of us to ensure our farm workers remain safe.”

Kelly Khatib is a digital reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here.

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