Coincidence or COVID connection?

Erie Co. Department of Health announces program to test farmworkers less than a week after revealing Eden COVID cluster.
Posted at 6:13 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 18:23:23-04

EDEN, N.Y. (WKBW-TV) — The Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) announced that it is working in conjunction with Kaleida Health to provide free COVID-19 test kits for workers at local farms and agriculture businesses.

Using the test kits, workers will provide a self-collected saliva sample that will be sent to a reference lab in New Jersey with results reported to the New York State and Erie County Departments of Health.

Farms and agricultural businesses interested in participating in the program can contact Kaleida Health Laboratories at (716) 626-7939 for additional information and scheduling.

The testing announcement comes less than a week after ECDOH revealed that a single exposure in the Town of Eden caused a cluster of 38 Covid-19 cases.

Erie County has provided few other details about the Eden COVID cluster, and some are wondering if the cluster and farm testing are coincidence or connected to each other?

"It is unfortunate that people have to make any kind of assumption about what is going on pertaining to a COVID outbreak," said Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.

Mychajliw sent a letter to Erie County Commissioner of Health, Dr. Gale Burstein, seeking more information about the Eden cluster. "For some reason, there is a cloud of secrecy cloaking the outbreak in Eden," continued Mychajliw.

You can read the comptroller's letter here.

Republican Erie County Legislator Frank Todaro (District 8) is also pushing for answers after getting numerous calls from constituents about the situation. "We have a cluster of thirty-eight people. Thirty-eight! And nobody knows anything."

The Town of Eden relies on a large influx of migrant workers each growing season to help the local farms. Those workers are hired as part of a special Federal visa program. Most workers have been in the Eden area since around April, commented Eden Supervisor Melissa Hartman. "There are not a lot of local citizens who want to do this work."

The pandemic has put extra pressure on farmers to take steps to protect health safety since migrant farmworkers live and work in close proximity.

"It is not a cheap process for farmers. They house and feed these workers," explained Supervisor Hartman. "It has been a hot summer and they have been in the fields with masks on all day long."

The supervisor said she was not given any information from Erie County about the source of the COVID cluster in Eden.

While she was disappointed about not being initially notified about the COVID cluster, Hartman said she was given apologies and assurances by county officials that things will be handled differently in the future.

As to the speculation that a farmworker was the source of the cluster, Hartman said she has no idea - and she hopes people will not jump to unfair conclusions when they see the numerous migrant farmworkers currently in the fields.

"We need to be kind. We are all at risk just the same. It doesn't matter your background, the color of your skin, the language you speak," said Supervisor Hartman.


7 Eyewitness News pressed for more information about the lack of details with the Eden COVID exposure and asked whether it was connected to a farmworker.

Both County Executive Mark Poloncarz's office and the Department of Health responded saying they had "nothing else to add on this particular topic" - but the ECDOH then sent the following explanation to reporter Ed Reilly later on:

"We release detailed information – date, time, location – related to a public exposure of communicable disease when our contact tracing process is not able to identify close contacts.

In this situation with Eden residents, we were able to identify and notify close contacts through our contact tracing process."