North Carolina Department of Agriculture says asymptomatic Farmworkers exposed to COVID-19 must continue working

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Guidelines for farmworkers
Farmworkers criticize the N.C. Agriculture Commissioner over his latest statement. Why are Christmas tree farm employees considered “essential”? Farmworkers argue their health is at risk, while corporate profit is prioritized over people’s lives.
This story was originally published in Spanish. You can read it here
By Paola Jaramillo  y Nicolás Baintrub
Paola@enlacelatinonc.orgnicolas@enlacelatinonc.org

NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh- The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner, Steven Troxler, announced new guidelines for essential workers stating that if they are asymptomatic, they should continue to perform their duties despite having been exposed to COVID-19.

According to the statement, “workers on farms, ranches, and other production agriculture work sites ” are considered essential, and must follow a new protocol established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To some organizations’ surprise, the statement declares that workers from Christmas tree farms be categorized as “essential workers,” meaning they are essential for the functioning of society.

Essential workers

“All agricultural workers are considered essential and should follow CDC guidelines for essential agricultural workers”, said Enlace Latino NC Heather Overton, assistant director of the Public Affairs Office for N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “NC. Commissioner Troxler supports the declaration provided by CDC and has informed DHHS by the memo”.

Enlace Latino NC
asked the NCDHHS for comment on the statement and they have not yet responded.

According to the CDC protocol, “in order to ensure the continuity of essential functions operations, the CDC indicates that critical infrastructure employees can continue to work if they have had potential exposure to COVID-19 if they remain asymptomatic and take additional precautions to protect them and to protect the community.”

Dangerous Guidelines

The statement has caused great concern because the new CDC protocol includes a recommendation that could be potentially dangerous for workers: “it indicates that people exposed to COVID-19 who are asymptomatic should continue to perform their tasks.”

It is a contradiction to tell people to take care of themselves and at the same time issue this kind of statement. The fact that farmworkers are essential does not mean they are disposable,” Lariza Garzón, executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFWM), told Enlace Latino NC.

For Garzón, this creates distrust towards the government, especially since the highest percentages of COVID-19 exposure among Latinos happen in rural counties, and this type of statement does not contribute to creating a sense of security.

According to Commissioner Troxler, the protocol should include Christmas tree farmworkers, who just a few days ago faced a COVID-19 outbreak that affected 112 people in Sparta.

“Frustrated”

Clermont Fraser Ripley, a lawyer for the North Carolina Justice Center specializing in rural work, agrees with Garzón: “We are quite frustrated with the statement from the Agriculture Commissioner. It sends the message that rural workers are disposable,” Fraser Ripley told Enlace Latino NC.

For Fraser Ripley, the statement, which is not even dated, is probably a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak that the Christmas tree farmworkers suffered in Sparta. “I suspect that the implementation of the protocol comes after the field owners requested it,” the lawyer said, referring to possible pressure from the farm owners to make sanitary measures more flexible.

For Fraser Ripley, Commissioner Troxler’s remarks value agricultural products more than the workers themselves

“This letter not only shows that avoiding work interruptions is more important than workers’ lives, but also that the Commissioner of Agriculture will risk those lives at the request of the businessmen.”

Furthermore, the lawyer, who specializes in agricultural work, does not understand why Christmas tree farm employees should be considered “essential workers.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, “critical infrastructure refers to the physical and cybernetic systems and assets that are so vital to the United States, and whose disability or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our physical or economic security or on our public health or safety.”

Food and agricultural services are considered essential tasks because they guarantee fundamental needs for society, but clearly Christmas trees don’t fit that description.

What The Protocol Says

The CDC protocol that the Agriculture Commissioner seeks to apply to Christmas tree growers states that critical infrastructure workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic should continue with their duties. However, it indicates that prevention measures should be taken, including prior evaluation, regular monitoring, the use of masks, social distancing, and disinfection of workplaces.

According to the CDC, the protocol should apply to critical infrastructure workers, including personnel in 16 different job sectors such as:

  • Local, state, and federal public safety
  • 911 call center employees
  • Government and Private Sector Hazardous Materials Response Personnel
  • Security and other maintenance staff
  • Food and agriculture workers, including contract vendors, as well as those in critical manufacturing areas, IT, transportation, energy, and government offices
Differences with the World Health Organization Guidelines

The new CDC guidelines actually contradict the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, which clearly state on the WHO’s  website that asymptomatic people can infect other people: “Transmission can also occur from people who are infected and remain asymptomatic (…) Even people who do not show symptoms should be isolated if they have been confirmed to have COVID-19, to limit their contact with others.”

According to the WHO, isolating people who have been exposed to the virus but are asymptomatic contributes to “breaking the chains of transmission” and stopping the spread of the virus.

Until August 30, 166,127 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in North Carolina, 231 of which are from outbreaks that have occurred in rural areas of the state.

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