COVID-19 has spread among Central Valley farmworkers at an alarming rate and, on Thursday, the National Institutes of Health announced that it is awarding $3.7 million in grants to the University of California, Davis, to expand testing.
“It is critical that all Americans have access to rapid, accurate diagnostics for COVID-19, especially underserved and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of this disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.
In California, where most farmworkers are Latinos, state residents in that ethnic group represent 38.9% of the population, but they represent 61.1% of COVID-19 cases and 48.4% of deaths, data from the Californai Department of Public Health show.
Nearly four out of every five people, aged 35-49, who die of COVID-19 in California are Latino, UC Davis officials noted.
Other people of color are also seeing a disproportionate impact. African Americans make up 6% of the Golden State’s residents. Although they comprise just 4.3% of cases, Blacks make up 7.6% of deaths from the respiratory disease, which is cause by the new coronavirus.
Pacific Islanders represent 0.3% of the state population but 0.5% of deaths and cases.
The NIH is investing $234 million nationwide in reversing this outsized impact on particular racial and ethnic groups. At UC Davis, the NIH funding is being directed to the Environmental Health Sciences Center, Clinical and Translational Science Center, Center for Reducing Health Disparities and Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Their low pay does not allow them funds to buy personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators or to employ physical distancing because their living conditions are crowded and their work commutes are shared, UC Davis officials said, and they have limited time or space for exercise. Consequently, officials said, farmworkers often have higher rates of underlying health conditions that have been show to put people at greater risk of serious and fatal cases of COVID-19.
Many farmworkers can’t afford to miss work, even if they’re sick, and are less likely to take time off the job to go to a COVID-19 testing site, said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, the director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities.
“We are taking the ÓRALE COVID-19 project where the needs are, and the needs right now, based on the data in terms of the number of cases, the number of deaths, the spread, the outbreaks that are happening, is in the Central Valley and other agricultural areas,” said Aguilar-Gaxiola.
The university will use two mobile health vans to ensure they can get to workers wherever they are to administer rapid antigen testing, UCD officials said, and they will hire a clinical coordinator and lab tech for each van, she said, and their relationships with community partners will help cement trust in the farmworker community.
UC Davis plan to work with community partners in Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and Yolo counties to test farmworkers because those counties have higher confirmed COVID-19 cases than the state overall.
The community partners are Radio Bilingue, Central California Environmental Justice Network, Lideres Campesinas, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, West Modesto Community Collaborative, Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueño, Building Healthy Communities-Fresno, the Health Education Council, the General Consulate of Mexico in Sacramento, and Rise Inc.
UCD is one of only 32 institutions in the United States, officials said, that are being funded for this testing by the federal government’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative and the RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program.
Locally, they are calling the project ÓRALE COVID-19 because farmworkers tend to speak Spanish, and in that language, the word órale is used to attest that something is positive. It’s similar to when native English speakers use the term “right on” or “OK,”
The Spanish-language acronym stands for Organizaciones para Reducir, Avanzar y Lograr Equidad contra el COVID-19, or in English, Organizations to Reduce, and to Advance, and Lead for Equity against COVID-19.