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By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Imagine you’re told you have COVID-19 and you have to isolate. But you and your family share a two-bedroom apartment with another family, and you have nowhere else to go, no savings for a hotel where you can stay for two weeks.
You’re told to call 211, the number in Monterey County that’s supposed to give you the information you need to find alternative housing. When you call, you’re told they don’t have that kind of information, but the 211 people give you another number you can call.
By then, you’re so exhausted and worried about what the illness holds for you and your family that you have no more energy to waste on making another phone call. An outreach worker offers to make calls for you, but she has no more luck than you: after being bounced from agency to agency to agency, she’s finally told to leave her number so somebody can call her back. She never hears from anybody. A few days later, the family you share your two-bedroom apartment with has also contracted COVID-19.
This is the type of story that outreach workers with Mujeres en Accion and COPA have encountered during dozens of interviews with COVID-19 patients in Monterey County — experiences some of these workers described during “Farmworkers Christmas Fights,” an online gathering to link ongoing conditions to historical treatment of farmworkers. The stories told Monday range from families who can’t pay rent anymore to families who can’t isolate to families who have to leave their homes to buy groceries because there’s nobody to do it for them. Most of them are “essential,” Spanish-speaking farmworkers who put food on our tables.
“There really is a gap, there has not been a smooth process for folks to find the resources that they need,” said Mayra Bernabe, an organizer with COPA. “Accessing 211 is complicated, people don’t know about it.”
Good news is on the way, and it may be just in time to address a frightening surge in COVID-19 infections that, according to the New York Times, it’s the third fastest in the country adjusted for the size of the population.
This week, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved a pilot program brought forth by COPA and other community organizations to deploy outreach workers to help COVID-19 impacted families. With nearly $5 million, COPA and other organizations will employ 100 persons to help coronavirus patients navigate the bureaucratic storm that comes with a diagnosis. The funds will also help for the families to be isolated and for other pandemic needs.
And it’s not just finding a place to isolate that’s needed, said Adriana Molina, a COPA organizer who has also been impacted by COVID-19 after her dad died.
“There are a lot of needs,” she said. “There’s supposed to be financial support from the state, but those have run out very quickly. If people stop working, they don’t have money for rent. Even if they’re not positive for COVID-19, they have to stop working and then they don’t have money to live on. At first you call and call and you get nothing, 211 has helped some people, but it’s not always effective.”
Farmworkers have been, by far, the most affected group by the coronavirus in Monterey County. Ag workers infected with the virus represent 13 percent of all the infections, although 41 percent of cases are under investigation. Latinos make up 59 percent of the population in Monterey County, but they represent 63 percent of the known cases — 28 percent of the cases are still under investigation.
Although there’s been a lot of information to the community about what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and some resources have been advertised, it’s become painfully obvious these resources are not enough or have not reached the people who need it most.
A study by UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers, in collaboration with Dr. Max Cuevas of Clínica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, found that more than a majority of farmworkers who tested positive for COVID-19 were still going to work even if they showed symptoms, many because they feared loss of income. Most of the patients interviewed sought medical help at one of the nine Clínicas in the Salinas Valley from mid-July through November.
A report recently published in The Californian revealed that only around 80 of the state’s more than 800,000 farmworkers have quarantined or isolated themselves in hotel rooms for agricultural workers since the program was announced in July. Molina believes it may be because nobody can find where these rooms are.
“How are you going to take advantage of that if you can’t find them?” Molina said. “We can’t find them, and we are people who are calling every day. If people need help, we’re looking for that help for three hours and we could not find anything.”
Starting on Jan. 1, 100 navigators will try to locate where those hotel rooms are. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope they’re found.
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