Health care access still a problem for California farmworkers

At the start of the pandemic, the essential workers bore the brunt of Covid-19, and farmworkers belong to that group. Over 800,000 people work in the California agriculture industry and keep us, and the rest of the country, fed. But the poor working conditions that include close housing quarters, working in processing plants, being exposed to pesticides and poor air quality, means they were and remain more vulnerable to the Covid-19 infection.

On December 21st, Ethnic Media Services and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) organized a briefing. It gathered a panel of experts to discuss how to ensure farmworkers are protected, up-to-date on their vaccination, and have access to anti-viral treatments. Likewise, the experts discussed the challenges of getting accurate data about the farmworkers’ communities. They also talked about the impact of expanded MediCal whose aim is to provide health insurance to all Californians regardless of their immigration status.
The same health recommendations still apply – keeping up-to-date on Covid-19 and flu vaccinations to prevent severe illness and death. Likewise, people should continue wearing masks, covering their faces when sneezing and coughing, and washing their hands regularly. Health officials also recommend staying at home when sick to prevent the spread of disease (whether it is Covid or any other respiratory viruses in circulation).

Dr. Ilan Shapiro Strygler (Chief Health Correspondent and Medical Affairs Officer at AltaMed) spoke about the importance of keeping farmworkers informed. As he said, the state of California made great strides in reaching out to the farmworkers’ communities during the height of the pandemic. But it is essential to keep the lines of communication open. It means presenting the information in the languages of these communities and in the cultures they understand.

The majority of farmworkers are migrant laborers from Central America and Mexico. Many belong to Indigenous communities in Mexico that do not speak Spanish. Over two-thirds of farmworkers are undocumented. All of these present challenges in ensuring farmworkers get access to healthcare.

Noe Paramo (Director of Sustainable Rural Communities Project at the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) Foundation) talked about the program his organization is working on with State Senator Anna Caballero and UC Merced. They are working on updating the farmworkers’ health data (over two decades old). It will shape the new healthcare policy that will include the proposed expansion of Medi-Cal for low-income Californians between the ages of 26 – 49, regardless of their immigration status. Noe Paramo estimates about 40% of farmworkers might not be eligible because of their incomes.

CRLA worked with UC Davis’ Órale Project and learned more than half of farmworkers infected with Covid never received treatment. Likewise, UC Berkeley conducted a study in 2020 and found 58% of farmworkers went to work when showing symptoms.

Several factors contributed to this worrisome data. People do not have medical insurance or are afraid to go to the hospital due to their immigration status. Furthermore, many mistrust medical institutions or worry about losing their jobs or wages. Another contributing factor is the lack of doctors in rural communities.
Ed Kissam (member of the National Center for Farmworker Health Advisory Committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) talked about the slow progress in getting people up-to-date with vaccinations. 14% of eligible people got their vaccination. That percentage is even lower for farmworkers’ communities (5-6%). Ed Kissam spoke about the University of California’s Test to Treat program that tests workers as soon as they show signs of infection and quickly connects them to available treatments. Anti-viral medication needs to be administered within five days of presenting symptoms.

Arsenio López (Executive Director, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project) commended the state of California for its pandemic efforts to connect with marginalized communities and help protect those most vulnerable. He also stressed the importance of language access since many Indigenous farmworkers know little or no Spanish. Mental health is another factor. López also thinks there is a growing laxity about Covid-19: “I am worried COVID-19 is becoming normalized… My worry is that there is this increase in positive cases while there is no sense of urgency as there was previously.”


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