California officials have been optimistic that the latest deadliest wave of the pandemic is beginning to subside as the most populous state in the United States distributes vaccines. But health workers in Fresno County said its emergency rooms and intensive care departments are still awash with patients.
“Sure, if your hospital goes from 200% capacity to 150%, of course they’ll say it looks better,” said Amy Arlund, ICU nurse at Kaiser Fresno Hospital. “But in my entire 20-year career, I haven’t seen so many people, so sick.”
Located in the heart of California’s central valley, Fresno County has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals in the region are still running out of ICU beds, medical staff and equipment. And the county is critically short on vaccinations, dashing hopes for a quick respite. Hardest hit are the region’s tens of thousands of farm workers, who have been working hard during the pandemic to supply what is equivalent to a quarter of the United States’ food supply.
About one in 11 people in Fresno has tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and even as hospital admissions begin to decline, the county of roughly 999,000 people is registering around 450 new cases per day.
“I work 60 to 80 hours a week because there is so much to do and there are not enough doctors,” said Kenny Banh, emergency medical director at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.
The pandemic has reduced the ranks of medical workers in the region. Two weeks ago, Community Regional was short of 400 doctors, nurses and other staff. “There were patients in the hallways because there weren’t enough nurses to keep all of our floors open,” Banh said. At times, patients intubated in the overwhelmed ICU were cared for by nurses who had no experience with the procedure.
“It is starting to get better now, where much of our staff has contracted Covid-19 and recovered, or received the vaccine,” he said. But still, there are not enough trained health workers to staff the hospitals, which remain at or above capacity, and coronavirus testing and vaccination centers.
Fresno has had a shortage not only of staff, but also of vaccine doses. Officials said the county had received 113,000 doses since the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved for use in December. With the state’s weekly vaccine allocations slightly declining in February, “we’re going to get to a point where we really have to reduce our distribution,” said Joe Prado, manager of the county’s community health division. The county has vaccinated its residents at half the rate as North Napa County, according to state data. Fresno was ranked 38th out of 58 California counties based on the proportion of residents who had received a coronavirus injection. Other counties in the central valley lagged even further.
Vaccines were so rare in Fresno last week that officials shut down mass vaccination sites. Local supervisors have written to the governor, and a city councilman even wrote Joe Biden directly: “Please send more vaccines.”
With hospitals brimming to the brim and vaccine shortages, the region’s farm workers are among the most vulnerable residents. Farm workers, and especially Latino farm workers, have been hit the hardest by the pandemic not just in Fresno, but throughout the state. A analysis By researchers from the University of California, they found that 39% more agricultural and food workers have died during the pandemic than before the virus attack.
“I’m scared because we have to work if we have to pay our bills,” said Imelda Valdivia, who works on a grape farm in Bakersfield, California, south of Fresno. She and her co-workers will get 14 days of paid sick leave if they test positive for Covid-19. “But we don’t know how our bodies will react. What if it takes longer to recover? “
About 60 to 70% of the state’s farm workers are undocumented immigrants, and many have been afraid to get tested for coronavirus or seek medical attention, even if they suspect they have the infection, for fear that the personal information and forms they they have to be completed in clinics and testing centers could be used for further follow-up.
“Foreign workers have been stopped by Ice (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) when they went to work – it’s a real fear,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farmworkers Foundation.
One year after the pandemic, workers still complain about unsafe conditions on farms and in meatpacking plants: lack of soap or hand sanitizer, reduced workplaces and homes, not enough masks or protective gear personal for everyone, Torres said.
And so far, few of them have received the vaccine. Fresno officials have said they have enough doses to fully vaccinate 3,000 essential farm workers, covering a fraction of the 70,000 to 90,000 who work in the fields. Language barriers and difficulties in signing up for the online systems used to schedule vaccination appointments are further complicating distribution.
“I think governments really need to think about how workers are going to get the vaccine,” said Vicente Reyes, a college student and farm worker.
“When I heard the vaccine was going to come out in California, I thought, ‘It’s going to be revolutionary,’” said Reyes, who is also a member of the United Farm Worker Foundation.
He and his parents, who also work in the fields, have no medical care and have been terrified of contracting Covid-19. “We were delighted with the vaccine, but then we were very concerned, because we don’t know how we are going to access it.”
Fresno officials said they are partnering with farmers, setting up mobile vaccination centers in or near fields and processing centers, so they can get the vaccine directly to workers. At one of those events in West Fresno last week, dozens of workers were able to receive their first dose. “Vaccinating our essential farm workers will ensure the safety of their workplaces, their homes, their families, our food supply and the vital services they perform,” said Brian Pacheco, Fresno County Supervisor. But, he said, “we just don’t have enough vaccines.”
While the most vulnerable await their doses, health workers in Fresno said their next big concern is a rise in misinformation and anti-vaccination sentiment. Protests against mask requirements in grocery stores and malls have become fairly common across the region, and in this latest stage of the pandemic, Banh, the medical director, said he was disheartened to see that many of his neighbors blatantly ignored health advisories to avoid gatherings and maintain physical distance.
Arlund, the Kaiser nurse, said she has been treating patients who deny, “right up until the moment they are intubated and put into a medically induced coma, which is Covid. They don’t believe they have Covid-19 until the moment they die. “
The breaking point for her, she said, was when her own family began to deny that Covid-19 was real. “They say I’m just trying to create fear. They say they are just going to live their lives, as usual, ”he said. Twelve of his family members in the area have tested positive so far, he said.
Meanwhile, four of his co-workers, and many more patients, have died from the virus. She said: “We were very tired before this pandemic. But this is beyond what we can handle. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism