Farmworkers at Lakeside Organic on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID South County

As farmworker vaccinations begin, South County continues to grapple with pandemic’s negative impacts

Santa Cruz County’s first clinic to vaccinate farmworkers is opening in Watsonville on Wednesday, but it’s only one step toward addressing the long-term economic and mental health impacts of COVID-19 among South County’s largely Latinx population.

What are the long-term effects of the pandemic and the virus on the Latinx community in South County? What are the challenges of vaccinating farmworkers? Did pre-existing inequities result in South County being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the pandemic?

With the first COVID-19 vaccination clinic specifically targeted to agricultural workers in Santa Cruz County to be held at Casserly Hall in Watsonville on Wednesday, it seems timely to dive in to these and other questions, which surfaced during a special Lookout event on Jan. 21 exploring all aspects of the pandemic. Among the panelists was Erica Padilla-Chavez — CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention & Student Assistance (PVPSA), a not-for-profit that serves young people in South County — and a co-chair of the Pajaro Valley Save Lives Community Group, which has been coordinating COVID-19 education efforts in Watsonville and beyond. Also on the panel was Dr. Gail Newel, the county’s health officer.

COVID South County

COVID South County, Lookout’s look at how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Watsonville and the surrounding area, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of its toll. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Here are their key responses, edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Is there anything you’ve seen that really puts this pandemic over the top and your own personal experience?

Padilla-Chavez: Well, just in sheer volume of demand of services in our agency (PVPSA) . . . our demand has grown by over 300%. There’s no way we can (serve all those people), so we lean on our partners as much as we can to link them to care. The percentage of students coming to us — the increase in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, is off the charts. These are all manifestations of the physiological and mental response to what is happening in their environment right now, due to the pandemic. We’ve seen, unfortunately, some suicides happen in our community, both in North County and South County among the youth. We are seeing suicide ideation rates up for the county as a whole. But the silver lining to all of this is that I know all of us have been working really hard to try to create what I call e-spaces for children to connect and to exercise their agency as children. And when given that opportunity, we are seeing children and youth respond.

Q: What are some of the pre-existing health inequities within Santa Cruz County that the pandemic has exacerbated?

Padilla-Chavez: The “health assessment” report produced by Dr. Newel’s team in 2017 has great, rich data about the health indicators of our county. In that report, you learn things like the fact that Latino households have the highest percentage of households that don’t have basic self-sufficiency income standards met. Over 80% of the population in Watsonville is Latino. The majority of individuals who have been impacted by COVID, or have died, are Latino. So we know that the indicators such as income disparity play a huge role.

What does that mean to a household that doesn’t have basic self sufficiency income standards met? It often means that a family is having to have two to three jobs just to make ends meet, and it often means that these jobs are in essential environments, what we call essential workers. So the rate of exposure for these individuals who are just trying to put food on the table and pay the rent is much greater than those of us who have the opportunity to work in an office. And when you think about how that income disparity is connected to the adverse health outcomes that we’ve seen with COVID, you can’t help but to see the connection. We are learning much about the inequity and what it does to people. We have a responsibility to study it along the way — and to work differently.

Q: What are some of the long-term impacts of the pandemic that you’re most concerned about?

Padilla-Chavez: We are seeing the impact of the trauma that this pandemic has caused on many families, stemming from hardships to actual lives lost. Economically, what we have seen in the Pajaro Valley is that through our partnership with partners like the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and other philanthropic agencies, we’ve been able to pull some resources to be able to support people, allowing them to keep their homes and prevent homelessness. Unfortunately, even though we’ve done a very good job in trying to coordinate those efforts, we know of families that have in fact become homeless. We know that we weren’t able to keep every individual house, and even though we have an eviction moratorium . . . the truth is when you’re a community with a high percentage of indigent community members or undocumented community members, these individuals oftentimes don’t know how to navigate those policies or navigate the legal world to advocate for themselves. So we’ve seen a high percentage of families lose their housing as a result, and that’s going to have lasting impacts, not just for the adults who became unhoused but the children who are now living in adverse housing conditions or even more extensive overcrowding conditions.

Q: What are some of the challenges of getting farmworkers vaccinated?

Gail Newel: All of these folks who have no choice but to be out in the front line and be exposed, (it’s) understandable that they feel that they should be vaccinated and, of course, we all do. When it is time for food workers to be vaccinated, we anticipate that they will be open, that there will be no documentation required. So all they will need to do is verbally give a name and address, and the date of birth. If they’re coming from other counties after having their first dose elsewhere — for example, with our migrant farmworkers that may be picking berries in Santa Maria one month and in Santa Cruz and next month — it will be enough for them to just show us their vaccination card and it will tell us what kind of vaccine they had and what date. We will honor that and give them dose number two. And we’re working to arrange transportation and different modes of communication.

Q: If a person doesn’t have health insurance, where can they get vaccinated?

Padilla-Chavez: I’m going to clearly say that we have improvement to do in the equitable distribution of vaccines. The Pajaro Valley Save Lives group submitted a letter to the Board of Supervisors documenting a need to improve in the equitable distribution of vaccines. It appears that the bigger health care agencies who received their allotment are triaging a system for their registered patients or clients, and it’s working for them. Unfortunately in South County, we just don’t have those level of health care systems in place — and we have a high percentage of individuals that are indigent, undocumented individuals. This is why we want to engage with the county to have greater clarity to work with them as they’re mapping it out, so that we can communicate to the community and begin to calm some of the anxiety, and some of their own feeling of being felt dismissed in this process.

Q: What are you hearing about people getting sick at work, especially in South County, and do they have enough economic support to be able to stay home if they are sick?

Padilla-Chavez: Most of the stories we hear are around parties and social gatherings, frankly, less around the workplace. But oftentimes you do have coworkers who share housing, and so that becomes the way in which the virus is transmitted. The county set up hotels in Watsonville to support people with quarantining. However, people that would ultimately be quarantined may not be able to access income to meet their basic needs. That’s been a challenge especially for our farmworking, undocumented individuals. They don’t have any other source of revenue to lean on. We suspect that some of them may be feeling sick and just not reporting because it’s a matter of literally ‘Do I put food on the table and do I eat or do I report that I’m sick.’ Which is why we are trying to think out of the box and figure out a way to provide some immediate financial assistance so that we can alleviate that financial stress.

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