Blueberries and tourism are both indelible parts of Maine’s identity and economy. As recent reports show and as common sense would indicate, both are also an avenue for potential COVID-19 transmission here in vacationland.
There have been several outbreaks at Maine wild blueberry farms, with a total of 25 confirmed cases among migrant workers at three facilities in Hancock and Washington counties as of Aug. 10, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In other COVID-19 news, some Maine hospitals, particularly Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, have been raising the alarm about the virus potentially being circulated by out-of-state visitors who didn’t find out that they tested positive until they had already arrived in Maine. At least five such out-of-state visitors have reached out to the hospital over the past week and a half.
These are reminders about the importance of being proactive in the fight against COVID-19, and about being flexible and adaptive when concerns arise.
So far, it appears that the testing structure that blueberry growers, the Maine CDC and the Maine Mobile Health Program that works with seasonal workers have come up with is working as intended. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah has emphasized the cases found among blueberry farm workers have been the product of proactive rather than reactive testing efforts. That’s a very important point.
“We’re testing everyone that’s going to work in the wild blueberry industry,” Eric Venturini, the executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, said last week. “Because the season has just started and the testing has just started, my hope is that we are able to find any positives that exist.”
Venturini told the BDN Editorial Board on Thursday that blueberry growers are waiting for individuals coming from out of state to get their test results back before putting them to work. He also said that there has been some symptom monitoring before migrant workers come to Maine, but that variation in other states in terms of testing availability and timing was a barrier to testing workers before they arrived in the state. He noted that the industry has been working in partnership with the state since March to provide for a safe season.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Agriculture work sites, shared worker housing, and shared worker transportation vehicles present unique challenges for preventing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.” Farm workers have been designated as essential at the federal level without mandated safety rules, and there have been related COVID-19 spikes in different parts of the country.
Venturini said the blueberry industry in Maine has had time to learn from experiences elsewhere, and thinks the plan in place here is working “extremely well.” While three locations have seen employees test positive, he pointed to the 2017 agriculture census total of 485 wild blueberry growers in the state.
According to the state, the blueberry workers who test positive — along with their close contacts — have been provided a safe place to quarantine at an undisclosed location in Bangor. As of Tuesday, roughly 50 recently arriving agricultural workers were staying at that location.
This appears to be model collaboration between an industry in the state, with both public health, worker safety and economic resilience in mind. Given that the state has given migrant farm employers guidance rather than requirements to follow, and the cautionary tales in other states, it’s critical that this proactive collaboration continues, and that both growers and the state continue to assess the effectiveness of their plan and adapt if necessary.
As the pilot project now being launched at Mount Desert Island Hospital demonstrates, it’s important to continue to assess the collective COVID response, look for potential gaps, and adjust accordingly. The hospital raised concerns about a potential limit to Maine’s contact tracing efforts relating to some out-of-state visitors, and now will have access to a program that the state has already been using to trace the contacts of people who have confirmed infections. That enables health officials to monitor the symptoms and provide advice to those people.
“It is our hope that this pilot will not only help keep our community safe but also benefit others with similar seasonal populations and tourism-based economies,” Arthur Blank, MDI Hospital’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Visitors and workers traveling to Maine from elsewhere have the potential to bring COVID-19 with them. The risks will vary depending on where they’re coming from and what they’ll be doing here, but no matter those circumstances, proactively managing those risks is essential.