At least 14 individuals have been infected and one has died in connection with a COVID-19 outbreak at a housing location for temporary agricultural workers on H-2A visas in Santa Maria, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has confirmed.
The outbreak was discovered among employees living in housing facilities operated by Alco Harvesting, a Santa Maria harvest management and labor contracting company whose sister companies include Bonipak Produce Inc., Betteravia Farms and Bonita Packing Co., according to the department.
Employees are spread between three converted motels including the former Econo Lodge on Nicholson Avenue, which currently houses approximately 250 employees, Colonial Hotel on South Broadway with 17 employees, and Motel 6 on East Main Street, which is currently vacant.
The Public Health Department did not identify the specific Alco housing location where the outbreak took place, but confirmed that testing among residents is continuing.
News of the outbreak and the death was first shared by local advocacy organization Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) on Tuesday and later confirmed by the county Public Health Department, with CAUSE identifying the deceased individual as Leo Begario Chavez-Alvarado, 51, a vehicle driver for Alco Harvesting who resided in the company's Motel 6 facility.
The death was announced by the Public Health Department Wednesday, marking the 33rd COVID-19 death in the county, including four deaths at the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc.
According to department spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz, the man's permanent residence was outside the county, and the investigation into his death is ongoing.
In a Tuesday statement, Alco said they were "deeply saddened" by the man's death.
"When we learned that Mr. Chavez was not feeling well, we immediately implemented our company COVID-19 preparedness protocols and took him to a local Urgent Care Center, where he was treated. Following that visit, Mr. Chavez self-quarantined while awaiting test results," the statement reads.
Alco Harvesting General Manager, Jeremy MacKenzie, said the company established various safety measures for workers prior to the outbreak, including sanitizing worker transportation and housing, restricting visitors in Alco housing, providing six foot distance markers in communal areas, providing gloves and handwashing stations, temperature checks boarding work transportation and providing a live-in manager to oversee housing.
Alco also responded promptly to reports of COVID-19 symptoms and conducted testing when needed, with the first positive employee case was confirmed in late April, MacKenzie said.
"We also asked employees to self-monitor and not report to work if they feel ill or to return home if they begin to feel sick while at work. Based on these checks and employee reports of illness, workers were tested and quarantined until test results were known," MacKenzie said.
Under the recommendation of county Public Health, the company has also solicited additional testing services to expand its testing capacity, Ruiz said.
Along with Public Health's ongoing investigation into Alco Harvesting, the company is also the subject of investigations by Cal/OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor, Ruiz said. MacKenzie declined to comment on the investigations, but stated that the company is working to answer the questions of local, state and federal authorities and that employees are the top priority.
A 'ticking time bomb'
Concerns about the potential for outbreaks among agricultural workers in Santa Maria have been shared with county and city officials by advocacy groups such as CAUSE as well as community members over the last two weeks, following the news of an outbreak at an Oxnard farmworker housing site in early July that infected nearly 182 workers.
To prevent a similar outbreak in Santa Maria, CAUSE has been pushing for more oversight of growers and labor contractors by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, with one of the main requests being further assessment of H-2A housing to ensure proper sanitation and distancing between residents.
Under the H-2A program, contractors are required to provide employees with safe housing and transportation to work.
"We continue to advocate for more government oversight of guest worker housing and working conditions in the fields, we demand that the agricultural industry does more to keep farmworkers safe," said Hazel Davalos, Community Organizing Director for CAUSE.
At a July 7 Santa Maria City Council meeting, members of the public also called on the city to take action to support farmworkers, noting climbing COVID-19 cases in the city and among agricultural workers.
A study of COVID-19 cases in Santa Maria by the county Public Health Department found that 20% of the county's cases are among agricultural workers, and that as of June 11, 131 of the county's total 142 cases confirmed among agricultural workers were in the Santa Maria area.
"I worry that we’re a ticking time bomb, knowing that we have a large number of H-2A workers in Santa Maria," councilwoman Gloria Soto said at the July 7 meeting.
City officials stated in 2019 that of the estimated 2,000 H-2A workers housed in Santa Maria for up to 10 months of the year, 50% are believed to be housed in converted motels, hotels or senior residences.