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About 350 Sonoma County farmworkers have contracted the coronavirus

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About 350 Sonoma County farmworkers have contracted the coronavirus during the pandemic and nearly a third told local public health officials they likely got infected at work.

The county’s most detailed assessment of the effect of the virus on its prized agriculture sector, which includes wine grape growers, revealed public health workers have documented 12 outbreaks that averaged 11 infections each for a total of 347 cases among ag workers. The biggest cluster of cases involved 38 workers associated with one unidentified agribusiness.

Health officials said infected ag workers identified 88 local vineyards, wineries and ranches as their places of employment, though not necessarily where they contracted the virus.

Dr. Kismet Baldwin, the county’s deputy health officer, said Friday the county’s farmworkers share a number of characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

Ag workers often live in crowded homes where it’s hard to isolate when someone gets infected, Baldwin said during a press briefing. What’s more, she said, they often share transportation, traveling to and from work in groups, increasing the possibility of virus exposure when a coworker gets sick.

“If they’re sharing bathrooms or sharing a kitchen and a living room and transportation, that’s one of the things we’ve noticed that’s contributing to (coronavirus) transmission,” Baldwin said.

County public health officials recently broke down COVID-19 cases among workers in various agriculture occupations and lines of business. Officials also tallied virus cases in other industries such as health care and construction and based on responses from residents infected concluded that workplace outbreaks only account for 5% of all infections.

Between March 31 and Sept. 3, of the 347 ag workers that tested positive countywide, 188 were field laborers; 21 worked in bottling, packaging or warehouse positions; 12 were business owners or supervisors; and fewer than 5 worked in miscellaneous jobs.

Nearly 30% of farmworkers infected with the virus during the ongoing pandemic opted, for unknown reasons, not to reveal to local public health officials where they work.

Zeke Guzman, a Latino advocate who works closely with local farmworkers, said some of them are reluctant to reveal where they work for fear of losing their jobs. Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, said in some situations farmworkers are afraid of even divulging that they’re sick because of the mandatory 14-day quarantine that would follow a positive COVID-19 test.

Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, said the growers trade group’s foundation has a fund for farmworkers who may need time off due to potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“The Farmworker Resiliency Fund supports the financial stability of farmworkers and their families during COVID-19,” Kruse said.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said local public health staff have been trying to overcome a level of “fear and mistrust“ among some ag workers who decline to say where they work after they test positive for the coronavirus. That fear factor, she said, is also prevalent among other workers in industries deemed essential such as food retailers and health care.

Making them a higher risk of contracting the pandemic disease, local farmworkers often lack access to health care and those working in the fields like grape pickers commonly live in crowded dormitory conditions, Mase said.

“That puts them at increased risk for something like COVID, which is easily transmissible from person to person,” she said.

Kruse noted the county’s agriculture industry includes a variety of sectors beyond vineyard employees. These include numerous farms, ranches and processing facilities for eggs, apples, milk, vegetables, as well as sheep and beef cattle.

In terms of Sonoma County’s renowned wine industry, Kruse said there are about 6,400 full-time and 4,500 part-time vineyard workers. The pandemic forced vineyard managers to implement a number of adjustments and safety protocols to keep crews safe.

Kruse, who is also executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, said early in the pandemic her organization spearheaded the acquisition of 10,000 N-95 masks for farmworkers. The group, she said, held numerous training sessions and workshops to help growers understand health protocols aimed at stopping spread of the virus.

Kruse said one technique being used is the formation of “pods“ of workers who work together on the same crew throughout the growing season. The concept mirrors county public health guidance that urges residents to limit their social circles only to their immediate households.

“We’ve been telling farmworkers all along, limit your interaction with people outside your household,” Mase said. “And if you’re traveling together, make sure that you follow social distancing and masking, because that’s where we’ve seen (virus) transmission, where people are traveling together.”

Mase said this week she thinks public health education and outreach efforts aimed at reducing the number of COVID-19 infections among local farmworkers has been working. County public health data shows new daily virus cases among ag workers have been declining since the beginning of August.

“Our efforts have really been targeted and we are seeing a decrease” of infections in the ag industry, Mase said.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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