As agricultural workers continue to have the highest COVID-19 case numbers in Santa Barbara County, workers who have tested positive and need a place to quarantine can recover in free hotel rooms through the Housing for the Harvest program. 

A state initiative adopted by Santa Barbara County in early September, Housing for the Harvest is a collaboration between the Family Service Agency and the county Public Health Department — with support from a slew of agricultural and health care agencies — that offers outreach, housing, meals and necessary transportation for farmworkers and food processing workers for the duration of their quarantine period.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, local advocacy groups have been calling on county leaders to increase support for agricultural workers, amid high case numbers and reports of virus outbreaks at housing sites for guest workers in the H-2A program. 

According to Housing for the Harvest supervisor Lisa Valencia Sherratt, one hotel is currently being used to provide rooms in Santa Maria, and four individuals have so far taken advantage of the program. Although the turnout has been small, she said it has made a huge difference for participants. 

"We really try to make people comfortable and take care of them as if they were our family. We want as many people to know about it, to understand what the program is, as possible," Sherratt said. "It’s something that can make not going to work possible." 

Quarantine housing is open to agricultural and food processing workers in three different categories: those who have tested positive for COVID-19; those who have been exposed to a confirmed case; and those who are experiencing symptoms and need a place to quarantine while they await test results, Sherratt said. For those in the latter two categories, the program will assist them with obtaining testing as well. 

"We verify if they have symptoms and can help them get tested. We let them stay there until they get their test results back, and we also get them transported to the testing site and hotel and back," she said. 

The mandated length of stay is 10 days from the positive test date or 14 days from the onset of symptoms, she said. Those seeking housing after being exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case are required to quarantine for 14 days after their last contact with the positive person. 

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Sherratt said the program is open to both guest workers and domestic workers in the agricultural field, with services in Spanish and Mixtec. In fact, two of the program's participants have been H-2A workers who were referred by their employer, she said.

To spread the word about the program, Housing for the Harvest is working closely with Community Health Centers of the Central Coast (CHC) to distribute fliers at their clinic locations throughout the county and with Mixteco community groups to share information verbally. 

Another important part of outreach has been to labor contractors, who can refer positive workers directly to the program, and to hospitals, who can provide a more seamless transition into quarantine for eligible patients that have tested positive.

"We're working on getting information to the hospitals, so that they're sure about what we do and how they can help if they have COVID-positive patients. If [the patients] cannot isolate safely at home, we can take people directly in our program," Sherratt said. 

The state department is responsible for contracting with hotels to participate in the program, with local organizers then reaching out to coordinate the rooms, Sherratt said. At this point, the program is seeking other hotels in the county, especially in the North County, to assist in the effort.

Along with adopting the Harvest for the Housing program, public health officials have strengthened screening requirements for H-2A housing sites to prevent further outbreaks and paired up with agricultural industry leaders to remind employers of required safety guidelines for workers in the fields. 

To contact the Housing for the Harvest program, call the Family Service Agency at 805-325-5341 for services in English, Spanish and Mixtec. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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