How California's Salinas Valley went from covid hot spot to a model for vaccination and safety

·5 min read

Last summer, the coronavirus raged among Salinas Valley farmworkers, who were three times more likely to be infected than other workers at that time, according to the Monterey County dashboard tracker.

Deemed essential, farmworkers planted, harvested and packed produce right beside co-workers, often relying on employers for crowded transportation and accommodation in camp-style housing. In many cases, protective gear, including masks, was in short supply. Testing didn't begin until many migratory workers had moved on to harvests elsewhere.

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A year later, much has changed.

D'Arrigo California, a longtime Salinas Valley company that grows 35,000 acres of mostly vegetables, was approved as the first site for mass vaccination for farmworkers in Monterey County in February. D'Arrigo partnered with the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a community-based health-care provider, and received a supply of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses directly from the federal government.

Three hundred workers were vaccinated at the first drive-through clinic; the next Saturday that number was 3,000, according to Christopher Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. As the number of people seeking vaccination grew each weekend, the clinic moved first to the Salinas Sports Complex that houses the California Rodeo Salinas, and then to the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in King City.

Valadez says his group, having just completed its 13th clinic, has vaccinated 30,000 farmworkers; other clinics at pharmacies and hospitals have vaccinated 15,000 more. He said more than two-thirds of farmworkers in Monterey County have been vaccinated and others have protective immunity from prior infection. By comparison, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, 54% of people over 18 in Monterey County overall are fully vaccinated.

As infection numbers spiked last summer, the Grower-Shipper Association established a quarantine housing program with 60 private beds available each month. This year, Valadez says, the capacity of the program has expanded, but it is averaging just five workers per month, an indication that vaccinations, PPE and other protocols have led to plummeting infection rates.

Valadez says the availability of housing has increased "but the demand just isn't there."

At grower D'Arrigo's headquarters, school buses that transport farmworkers to the fields line up before dawn, many hauling flatbeds of portable hand-washing stations. Last spring these were scarce in the Salinas Valley, despite CDC guidance that hand-washing was crucial for minimizing transmission. At D'Arrigo, which grows Andy Boy brand broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, fennel and romaine hearts, bus drivers now wait to greet workers, asking questions about workers' health while spraying their hands with sanitizer and taking temperatures.

An agricultural city of 155,000 people that produces a significant portion of the nation's lettuces, and broccoli, Salinas saw significant coronavirus outbreaks last growing season. A Berkeley public health study reported that between mid-July and November 2020, 13% of the farmworkers enrolled in the study tested positive for the virus, compared with only 5% of California's population overall.

Transport buses arrive at a field in Spreckels, Calif., three miles south of Salinas, before first light. Last harvest season, California's state agencies and growers were slow to require mandatory personal protective equipment, to determine how and when to test workers and what protocols to adopt when workers tested positive. The farmworkers included those with seasonal H-2A work visas, some American migrant workers and many more undocumented workers, largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many became infected while living in group housing and traveling to work sites in crowded buses and vans. In many cases, workers who knew they were infected couldn't afford to stay home.

Now, masks and other protective equipment are routine for the roughly 60,000 farmworkers in Salinas Valley, often called "the Salad Bowl of the World." At the D'Arrigo registration office where workers apply for jobs or talk to human resources, social distancing is strongly encouraged, with floor markers to establish appropriate spacing between people.

This growing season, all of D'Arrigo's nearly 2,000 workers, regardless of immigration status, are required to take classes that demonstrate how to safely pick a crop, how to properly socially distance in the field and what to do if workers fall ill. In January, Monterey County also began a six-month outreach program, paid for by federal pandemic relief funds and tax revenue, to educate farmworkers on coronavirus testing and vaccination, with money available to pay for quarantine expenses and medical costs.

D'Arrigo California, with a patent on the name "broccoli rabe," is the largest commercial grower of this vegetable in the country, harvesting more than 4,000 acres annually. With broad ruffled leaves and skinnier stems than regular broccoli, broccoli rabe, also known as broccoli raab or rapini, is a relative of the turnip.

In D'Arrigo fields this spring, workers are spaced widely and the field manager periodically spreads his arms out to show the six feet required between workers. Gloves and face coverings are required. Last spring, according to Valadez, "you couldn't find a face covering," which prompted the Grower-Shipper Association to purchase a million masks for farmworkers; Monterey County purchased 750,000 more face coverings, 300,000 of which went to Salinas Valley farmworkers.

D'Arrigo California was the site of the first mass farmworker vaccination in February. Since then, growers survey their employees to determine how many are interested in becoming vaccinated, offering time off and transportation to the vaccination sites. The Grower-Shipper Association of Central California organizes the logistics of each weekend's clinic and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas provides nurses and doctors to administer the shots.

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