Michigan National Guard COVID testing translates to tangible service for agricultural and food processing workers

A physician’s assistant with the Michigan Air National Guard gives an Ottawa County resident a COVID-19 test at an event in Holland, Mich., August 16, 2020. (Photo by Michigan National Guard Staff Sgt. Tegan Kucera)

Story by Staff Sgt. Tegan Kucera

Michigan National Guard

HOLLAND, Mich. — Protecting all Michigan residents is a tall order, to include those who are the seasonal workers helping out with food production for a few months in the summer and fall.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services put out an emergency order at the beginning of August, stating that all agricultural and food processing workers who are living in migrant housing camps must be tested for COVID-19 within 48 hours of entering the state.

“The men and women who work in our fields and food processing plants are at particular risk for COVID-19, and they need and deserve protection,” said Robert Gordon the MDHHS director. “Today’s order will help to reduce the spread of COVID in communities across Michigan and reduce the pandemic’s disparate impact on Latinos.”

Helping the health department with this order is the Michigan National Guard. Guard members were in Holland on August 16, 2020 testing any resident who desired a test. Many members migrant population were among those being tested.

The Army non-commissioned officer in charge of the Task Force, Sgt. Maj. Santos Feliciano, was there to provide translation services for Spanish-speaking residents.

“We do have a large migrant population as well in our community, because of our influx of migrant workers during the summer and fall months. So having somebody who does speak Spanish is important because it gives them access too,” said Heather Alberda of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.

The National Guard provided 23 Airmen from Task Force 182 to administer the no-cost tests to the Ottawa County inhabitants. The Airmen also helped the health department with the administrative process of getting the information from all who took the test, so that if someone is positive for COVID-19 they can be contacted with the results.

“I think it’s a wonderful, it’s a great collaboration between the Guard and local county health departments, to provide these services for free to those in our community,” said Alberda.

Michigan has a Latino population of about five percent, but that population represents 11 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases. The city of Holland has a Latino population of 23 percent and only ten within the whole county, however within Ottawa County 31 percent of all COVID-19 cases are from those who identify as Latino.

“The request to have somebody come in as a translator is important,” said Alberda. “That way we’re giving the opportunity to everyone to come in and get tested and to have access to the COVID-19 testing. In this particular part of Holland we do have a large Spanish speaking population, and so we are trying to meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Originally from Puerto Rico, Feliciano has had other opportunities to use his bilingual skills during his military career. He said he used it more when he was in the Florida National Guard and would assist after hurricanes.

“I think it’s great; if I have a tool, something they could use, I don’t mind using my bilingual skills to help out any community, that’s what we do in the Michigan National Guard, help the community,” said Feliciano.

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