With more than 20 million acres of corn and soybeans, Illinois is among the top U.S. producers of both those crops. To make it all happen, the state relies on thousands of farmworkers — some who travel to the state for seasonal work and others, like 35-year-old Saraí, who call Illinois home.
Being an agricultural worker "is the most beautiful thing," Saraí says in an interview in Spanish. NPR agreed to identify her only by her first name because she's undocumented.
Saraí has spent much of the past decade cultivating crops in central Illinois, and moved to the U.S. from Mexico to find work that would allow her to better support her family; since the onset of the pandemic she's spent most of her time shepherding her three kids through their virtual school classes.
There have been tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases and hundreds of deaths reported among U.S. farmworkers and meat plant workers. Because there isn't an official tracking system in place, these figures — based largely on media reports — are likely an undercount.
And yet, agricultural workers like Saraí struggle to get access to the most basic tool to fight the spread of the coronavirus: testing.
Saraí, for example, has only been tested once since the start of the pandemic. The nearest testing site is the next town over, and without a car of her own or a public transportation option, she had to borrow a friend's vehicle to get there.
She hasn't gotten COVID-19, but Saraí knows many others who've gotten sick. She says the pandemic has made the past year a sad and difficult one.
"Many farmworkers are both working and living in sometimes isolated rural regions of the country," says Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the California-based United Farm Workers Foundation.
In addition to living far from testing sites, these workers often lack access to reliable information in their native language and have a general mistrust of the health care system. And missing work to get a test, or to isolate or quarantine, could be financially devastating.
While the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine provides some hope for a better future, the virus is still spreading across the U.S. and efforts to expand access to testing and build trust with communities of farmworkers are still needed, Tellefson Torres says.
She says these efforts will also be critical for ensuring that these hard-to-reach, vulnerable populations have access to the vaccine when the time comes.
Leverage long-standing community connections
Early on in the pandemic, Gilberto Rosas, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was struck by how easy it was for him — a work-from-home professor — to get a test, compared to other workers in nearby towns who were more vulnerable to catching the virus and developing a severe case of COVID-19.
Rosas works in Champaign-Urbana, which has its own mass testing program for university students and employees. The campus is just 15 miles south of the Village of Rantoul, where outbreaks at a meat processing plant and a hotel housing migrant farmworkers were among the worst in the county last year.
"We can walk down two flights of stairs, go out the back door and we can get testing," Rosas says. "Whereas these people who are at the forefront — who work in the fields, who work in the plants — they lack that kind of access."
Rosas is part of a team at the University of Illinois that had set out to study what was causing the virus to spread among members of the agricultural community. They decided to also do something to address the issue of testing access.
"We want to both unearth inequalities, but also mitigate them," Rosas says.
The researchers teamed up with medical professionals from clinics in the area to organize pop-up coronavirus testing events in Rantoul.
The events are advertised in English and Spanish. The group has also tried to leverage long-standing community connections to bolster turnout, reaching out to churches and organizations that cater to the area's immigrant and agricultural workforce.
Even with that outreach, they've been frustrated by low attendance at many of their testing events.
At one event held before Christmas outside a community center, for example, only 15 people came to get a test. Four of those 15 tested positive — a very high rate.
Structural barriers: Financial and immigration worries
Sofia Bolanos Robinette suspects the reason more people don't turn out for coronavirus testing, even when it's available at convenient times and locations, is because a positive test can be financially devastating.
Bolanos Robinette has worked with farmworkers for the past 10 years, most recently as an advocate for migrant students in the Illinois Migrant Education Program. She recently joined Rosas and the other University of Illinois anthropologists to study issues like barriers to testing.
She recalls helping last summer with a coronavirus testing effort aimed at farmworkers who travel to the region for seasonal work. The clinic tried to make it as easy as possible for the workers to attend by setting up a station during off-hours right outside the migrant housing area.
"But some of them said they didn't even want to take the test, because, in the case they get back [a positive result], they will have to stop working," Bolanos Robinette says. "And then that means, for them, they will not get any money for at least two weeks."
That's a big deal, she says, especially for farmworkers who earn the bulk of their yearly income doing this seasonal work.
For low-wage farmworkers, "every penny counts," says Tellefson Torres of the United Farm Workers Foundation. In the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, one third of farmworkers reported family incomes below the poverty line.
Simply put, they have no safety net.
"When you have to worry about putting food on your own table for your family, sometimes that is the focus, because there isn't another option," Tellefson Torres says.
For those agricultural workers who are undocumented, she says, there are even more disincentives to get tested. They may worry that seeking a coronavirus test could jeopardize their efforts to obtain a visa — which is not true, but is a common misperception. And after years of the Trump administration being more aggressive with immigration enforcement, Tellefson Torres says, there's a huge lack of trust and a real fear of deportation.
Despite lower-than-ideal turnout at the pop-up testing events in Rantoul, University of Illinois anthropologist Ellen Moodie says attempts to host "a few small-scale testing events, irregularly scheduled and located in different sites" have made a difference for the handfuls of people who might not otherwise have known they had the virus.
However, Moodie says, the U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy to address the virus and protect vulnerable workers. Many public health experts have been calling for such a strategy since the start of the pandemic.
So far, President Joe Biden has made that a priority of his administration. In a document published Jan. 20, his inaugural day in office, Biden outlined a COVID-19 strategy that focused on boosting the production and distribution of vaccines. His plan includes efforts to address supply shortfalls for testing materials, implement stronger worker safety guidelines, expand emergency paid leave and otherwise strengthen the social service safety net.
Vaccine implications: Mistrust breeds skepticism
Building trust with members of the agricultural worker community remains critical, Tellefson Torres says, not just to get more people to show up for testing — but also to show up for the vaccine as soon as they are eligible.
At a recent virtual town hall event hosted by the United Farm Workers Foundation, Tellefson Torres says she has heard from many farmworkers across the United States who are eager to get the vaccine. But others have reservations.
The biggest concern she's heard has been about the potential cost, especially for the many workers who lack health insurance. Tellefson Torres says her organization is working on getting the word out that the vaccine is free for everyone.
Others, she says, worry about vaccine safety, asking questions like: "What is this vaccine? What does it contain?... What are you putting in my body?'"
Vaccine safety is something Saraí — the farmworker in Illinois — worries about too. After finding some information online, she grew concerned about the possibility of adverse reactions, so, at least for now, she isn't planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, Sarai says, if someone she trusts shows her evidence the vaccine is safe, she could change her mind.
In Illinois, food and agriculture workers are now eligible for the vaccine. Public health administrator Julie Pryde says the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District — which serves Champaign County, including the Village of Rantoul — plans to work with a federally supported migrant clinic to host mobile vaccination events targeting migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
Tellefson Torres says partnerships like that will be critical to ensure that agricultural workers, who have faced so many challenges throughout the pandemic, have equitable access to the vaccine — their best hope of staying healthy.
"The norms that we have seen prior to the pandemic — of not prioritizing worker health or just basic safety-net needs — need to be addressed both by state, local, federal governments and employers," she says. "We're literally talking about a life-and-death situation here."
This story was reported in collaboration with Side Effects Public Media, Harvest Public Media and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting — and is part of a reporting partnership that includes Illinois Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News.