VISALIA, Calif. (CN) — While California currently leads the nation in coronavirus cases — not unexpected with a population of 40 million — its Central Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, leads the state with outbreaks local health officials struggle to squelch.
While the Central Valley saw its first case on March 6, the persistent surge in Covid-19 cases began after the Independence Day holiday, during which large numbers of people were observed gathering. There are currently more than 36,000 active cases across the valley and 467 residents have died.
The Central Valley is largely dominated by agriculture, manufacturing services and retail, so most of its residents don’t have the luxury of working from home. Many of those fortunate enough to remain employed must work side-by-side in the fields, processing plants, warehouses, meatpacking plants and other similar facilities daily. These jobs don’t generally allow for much physical distancing, and in the recent 100-degree heat many workers understandably choose to forgo a face mask.
Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced the state would deploy a Covid-19 “strike team” to the area to begin assessing local needs and resource gaps, which arrived Monday in Fresno. Similar teams were deployed in Imperial County after cases there flared in June and July, and made significant progress in reducing the growth of new cases there.
Local public health officials met with the team to discuss strategies and where best to deploy the state’s resources in a region where the growth rate of new cases is quickly outpacing the rest of California. Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, said he welcomed any additional help provided by the state and said the experience the strike team gained in Imperial County should be invaluable.
“They were able to really stabilize the multiple outbreaks that were going on there,” said Vohra. “They learned a lot of lessons and now they’re deploying these similarly structured teams to the Central Valley.”
When asked why the virus has such a foothold in Central California, Vohra said people aren’t practicing social distancing.
“More than anything, it’s really being passed along in households. It’s really gatherings among households, small parties, maybe backyard functions that we know are happening,” Vohra said. “All of that is really driving this transmission, and all of that has to stop right now even though that’s very hard to hear.”
Fresno County, with just under 1 million residents, has treated an average of nearly 300 people with Covid-19 in its hospitals over the past two weeks, up from fewer than 100 in early July. And the virus is not confined to adults: Officials at Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno recently announced the first death of a child in the county due to complications from Covid-19.
To the south in Tulare County, the picture looks worse. There are currently 2,879 active cases in the county of about 450,000 and the death toll stands at 189 people, while 6,677 individuals who caught the virus have recovered. Despite those recoveries, the rate of infection there is nearly six times higher than the state’s target goal of 100 cases per 100,000 residents. Over half of those infections can be traced to essential workers in the Latino community.
Lali Moheno organizes the Farmworker Women’s Conference on Health, Safety, Employment, Education and Environment in Visalia, a conference targeted at health issues confronting female farmworkers. She said rural communities have been particularly hard-hit by the virus.
“The number one factor is fear,” Moheno said. “Fear of losing their jobs, infecting their children and spouse, fear of medical attention as they do not have the funds for treatment if they are undocumented. The undocumented are not eligible for some services. They are receiving food services. Workers have been reduced to comply with social distancing in the fields. Others are now home sick. Yesterday, I talked to workers who think they are infected and have refused to be tested or to receive medical treatment due their immigration status.”
The state recently deployed $52 million in federal funding for disease investigation, contact tracing and quarantine efforts in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Philanthropists chipped in an additional $6.5 million to assist the valley’s most vulnerable residents find food and keep a roof over their heads.
According to Dr. Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of Irvine, the local statistics appear more dire by the week.
“I’ve been noticing there’s a sort of alarming increase in mortality in the valley,” he said in a telephone interview. “The valley counties are kind of climbing up the list. But also, testing numbers influence the number of positive tests. If the number of tests go down the number of positives also go down.”
He added: “Mortality statistics are more reliable indicators than case counts. Deaths are a lagging indicator; even if everyone started masking up like crazy right away, I would still expect things to get a little worse before they get better.”
The scene in downtown Visalia doesn’t appear much different than in its pre-pandemic days, with the exception of the “Mask Required” sign hanging in nearly every window and the occasional masked cyclist passing by. Around 80% were seen walking around without protective gear, though many of them did appear to acquiesce and don a mask before entering shops.
“I wear a mask in public when required for work or if businesses require one to enter,” said resident Brandon Calemmo before slipping into a downtown diner. “I understand that it’s not the employees’ fault for the mask requirements and as someone who works in retail, I try my best to empathize with employees being required to enforce regulations.”
Anthony DeFilippo, another Visalia resident, noted that he’s not an epidemiologist when asked about his mask-wearing habits, and deferred to expert judgment.
“The whole family does, because I don’t know enough to be able to say this is a scam or should I take precautions,” he said. “So, we take all the steps to protect ourselves. At the end of the day, whether it will kill you or not, I don’t like being sick.”