IMMOKALEE - In early 2020 Americans began hearing rumors about a virus outbreak in China. Within a matter of weeks, the virus, dubbed COVID-19, had spread to several other countries straining the healthcare system in each country it reached.
Health officials were unprepared for the influx of patients dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. Making matters worse, migrant communities across the country had to deal with the spread not only in close working conditions within packing houses, but they were forced to come to terms with just how migrant farmworkers live.
From cramped homes with multiple occupants to a lack of sanitary facilities, it was only a matter of time before COVID-19 would expose these issues for many who don’t understand where their produce actually comes from.
As the virus spread, media outlets began reporting on the impact COVID-19 had on the nation’s migrant labor force.
On June 12, 2020 the headline in the Associated Press read ‘Immokalee, other migrant towns, become COVID-19 hot spots.’ On June 18, 2020 the headline in the New York Times read ‘Florida’s Coronavirus spike is ravaging migrant farmworkers.’
Immokalee, like other communities across the nation, waited for the development of a vaccine that would help alleviate the spread of COVID-19. As healthcare information progressed and pharmaceutical companies rushed to develop a reliable vaccine, leaders behind the scenes were working on a plan to begin rolling out the vaccine once it became available.
One of those plans was to utilize Eventbrite, an online ticketing system typically used for conventions and concerts alike. The plan was to use six separate sites throughout the county in order to administer vaccines.
The goal was to vaccinate healthcare workers and those over 65 years of age. What leaders failed to anticipate was the immediate drain on resources by non-Immokalee residents. Because residents throughout the county were unable to schedule tickets at the vaccination sites closer to their home, they turned to the one-day vaccination site in Immokalee on Jan. 5.
So what failed? How were Immokalee residents shut out at the vaccination site in their own town? As many would come to learn, older residents in Immokalee didn’t know where to go to register for the vaccine. Health officials were asking older, often migrant Immokalee residents, to use a smartphone to download an app, register for an account, confirm that registration, then find the event they were looking for, and register.
Nearly 500 individuals were vaccinated in Immokalee on Jan. 5. But many of those weren’t even from Immokalee and some had never even been to Immokalee prior to that day. Frustration mounted among local residents which left Department of Health Spokesperson Kristine Hollingsworth asking residents to remain patient.
“We had issues in the beginning with the COVID vaccination rollout when we used the Eventbrite system. We recognized that non-Immokalee residents took these appointments and came to Immokalee,” said Mark Lemke, Immokalee Site Administrator with the Florida Department of Health in Collier County.
Because of this failure, the Department of Health is changing the way it offers vaccines in Immokalee. Lemke said, “This time we’re partnering with Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida to help manage that delivery. So far, approximately 500 Immokalee residents over the age 65 have been vaccinated. Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida has been reaching out to their clients over the age of 65 in order to ensure they receive the vaccine if they choose to get the vaccination.
Lemke said that local Immokalee residents over the age of 65 or those deemed ‘extremely vulnerable’ are encouraged to contact the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida by calling 239-675-7080 to ensure they are scheduled to receive a vaccination on March 11 or March 25.
In an effort to combat the language barrier challenges, the Network has multilingual specialists available at 239-675-7080 who can help with providing information about vaccines, community resources, and general questions.
“We lost a lot of good people,” Lemke said. “Of everything we do, we couldn’t do it without partners at EMS, fire, law enforcement, and healthcare officials. We need people to continue wearing masks and maintain social distancing.”
Danny Gonzalez, President of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce, said he feels better knowing that Immokalee residents are finally able to get the vaccine.
The Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida will continue offering COVID-19 testing at several locations throughout Immokalee. For an updated list, check out https://healthcareswfl.org/calendar.