Farm to Study

By industry, agriculture has the largest number of workers who have tested positive for Covid-19, 19.42 percent, according to the Monterey County Health Department.

There’s now data to back up what’s been known anecdotally in Monterey County for months: More needs to be done to safeguard farmworkers, among the hardest hit by Covid-19. One of the biggest needs is easy to access replacement wages, according to UC Berkeley researchers who finished collecting data in the Salinas Valley Nov. 30. They were “alarmed” to discover that 58 percent of workers who were both infected and symptomatic continued to go to work while sick, mostly out of fear of losing income and jobs.

“We really need to figure out if there’s a way we can provide replacement income without any delay in a population that is already living near the hunger line,” says Brenda Eskenazi, a professor at the UC Berkeley Public Health Graduate School and one of the authors of “Prevalence and Predictors of SARS-COV-2 Infection Among Farmworkers in Monterey County, CA.”

Preliminary results of the first long-term study of farmworkers during the pandemic were released on Dec. 2. Despite needing at least another month to complete data analysis, the researchers wanted to get their findings into the hands of growers and policymakers with the power to make life-saving decisions, especially in light of the current surge of cases.

“We felt it was quite important to do this as soon as possible,” says Joseph Lewnard, assistant professor of epidemiology. With vaccines on the horizon, Eskenazi says policymakers need to consider prioritizing farmworkers to be vaccinated early.

While 98 percent of 1,089 farmworkers participating said they used masks at work, 53 percent said there was insufficient physical distancing on the job and 35 percent said they commute to work with people not in their household. Lewnard says the commuting finding is interesting as a potential source of spread – and it’s preventable.

One surprising early result is that overcrowding in homes did not appear to increase the likelihood of testing positive, Eskenazi says, although more analysis is needed to know for sure. Living with someone with Covid-19 symptoms was a significant risk factor.

The study began July 16, thanks to a long partnership between Eskenazi – author of a groundbreaking study on the effects of pesticide exposure on children in Monterey County launched in 1999 – and Max Cuevas, CEO of Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas. Patients who came to Clinica de Salud for Covid testing were asked to enroll in the study, as were people recruited at community health fairs or at housing complexes. Research assistants collected blood samples on the day of testing, while another team contacted participants by phone for interviews.

Eskenazi helped organize a coalition of growers, community groups and doctors in April to protect farmworkers, called the Monterey County Coalition of Agriculture (MC-COA). She calls efforts by growers and the county “innovative and a model,” but notes more action is needed.

Recommendations of the study include: checking workers for symptoms before boarding buses or entering the workplace; developing a culturally and linguistically appropriate education campaign for workers and employers; increasing rapid testing and contact tracing; and taking testing to fields and entire households.

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