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Long-term study shows California farmworkers disproportionately hit by COVID-19 pandemic

For months, experts suspected that California’s farmworker communities were bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to substandard working conditions.

Now, a group of UC Berkeley public health researchers have confirmed that suspicion in the first long-term study of its kind.

In a paper published in mid-September, the UC Berkeley team, including Ana Mora, an assistant researcher at the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at Berkeley Public Health, and Joseph Lewnard, an assistant professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, detailed findings on the prevalence of, and the risk factors for, COVID-19 infection among California farmworkers. As expected, they are both much higher than for the general public.

Over the study period between mid-July and November 2020, 13% of the Monterey County farmworkers who worked in agriculture in the two weeks before enrolling in the study tested positive for COVID-19.

Nineteen percent of farmworkers who participated in the study tested positive for antibodies to COVID-19, indicating prior infection, researchers found. The prevalence of COVID-19 in participants was four-fold higher—22% vs 6%—between June and November 2020 than in the Monterey County population at large.

“Until we did our study, it was all anecdotal information on how hard farmworkers have been hit, in terms of coronavirus infection rates, but also in terms of mental health and economic impact,” Mora said. “So I think that was pretty key in filling the gap of knowledge in this population.”

Mora encouraged increased distribution of and education on COVID-19 vaccines, more isolation facilities to reduce COVID-19 exposure and increased access to paid medical leave for farmworker communities in California.

Other co-authors include Katherine Kogut, Stephen A. Rauch, Samantha Hernandez, Marcus P. Wong, Karen Huen, Cynthia Chang, Nicholas P. Jewell, Nina Holland, Eva Harris, and Brenda Eskanazi of UC Berkeley and Maximiliano Cuevas of the Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas.