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At Least 100 Migrant Farmworkers In Illinois Have Tested Positive For COVID-19, Clinic Director Says

The Community Health Partnership of Illinois is a federally funded clinic that reaches out to migrant workers to provide primary care services. This year, they’re also offering free COVID-19 testing with support from the state health department.

CHICAGO – Thousands of workers travel to Illinois each year to work on farms, with the largest influx to central Illinois in the summer and fall.

Amid concerns about COVID-19, the state’s department of public health is partnering with medical clinics to make testing available to farmworkers. 

The Community Health Partnership of Illinois, based in Chicago, is one of two federally funded clinics in the state offering COVID-19 testing to migrant farm workers. Community Health Partnership has six branches operating across central and northern Illinois, providing health risk assessments and primary care services. 

The clinics are open to anyone, regardless of ability to pay, but they cater to seasonal and migrant farmworkers. This year, in addition to conducting the usual health risk assessments and offering primary care services, the clinics are providing guidance and information about how to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as offering free COVID-19 testing. 

Clinic staff recently traveled across central Illinois, setting up mobile COVID-19 testing sites for workers arriving in the area for the corn detasseling season.

In addition to the mobile sites, the Harvard clinic in northern Illinois provides COVID-19 testing on site, says CEO Eleace Sawyers. 

In an email to Illinois Newsroom, Sawyers said 786 patients were tested for COVID-19 at the Harvard testing site as of July 3. About 90% of those tested, or roughly 700, were migrant workers, with an overall positivity rate of 17%. 

This comes out to more than 100 COVID-19 cases among farmworkers in northern Illinois.

“Initially, we had a 33% positive rate,” Sawyers said. “In the last week the positive rate is at (about) 5%.”

The data from the mobile COVID-19 testing sites across central Illinois are still being compiled and will be shared when they are available, Sawyers said.

Nationwide, there’s a lack of systematic data regarding COVID-19 among the estimated two million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S.

The National Center for Farmworker Health has compiled reports from media outlets documenting more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 among farmworkers across 15 states, including Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Several workers have died.

Asked how many migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in Champaign County, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said in an email that her agency is not collecting that information. 

In an interview Tuesday on WILL’s statewide talk show, The 21st, Sawyers said efforts are underway to expand COVID-19 testing to all six CHP sites.

“We’re securing opportunities with other partners and collaborating across northern and central Illinois to make sure we have testing opportunities at all locations,” she said.

Governor J.B. Pritzker said last week that the state is sending out COVID-19 mobile teams to expand testing among vulnerable populations, including those who live in migrant housing.

Christine Herman is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman

Picture of Christine Herman

Christine Herman

Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned audio journalist who covers health for the Illinois Newsroom. Her reporting for Illinois Public Media/WILL has received awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association, the Public Media Journalists Association and has reached both regional and national audiences through WILL's health reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Christine started at WILL in 2015.

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