After reports that Leo Begario Chavez-Alvarado, a 51-year-old agricultural worker from Salinas temporarily living in local H-2A housing, died on July 7 after contracting COVID-19, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department confirmed the death was connected to an outbreak at the congregate housing setting where he lived in Santa Maria.
As of July 20, according to public health officials, 50 individuals have tested positive in connection with the outbreak. Workers living in the housing facility will be tested again this week, and will continue to be tested on a weekly basis until there are two consecutive weeks of no additional positive tests, said county Deputy Director for Community Health Paige Batson.
Batson told the Sun that the county’s contact tracing team was aware of some infected individuals in the facility before Chavez-Alvarado died. However, public health officials did not connect these individuals as part of an outbreak until after the death occurred.
Batson explained that a situation is only defined as an outbreak if there are three or more cases and if those individuals do not live together, making this outbreak particularly difficult to identify given that the individuals all live at the same hotel addresses, but in a number of separate rooms.
“Unless somebody is really familiar with the way the H-2A housing is set up, you wouldn’t know if it’s a residence,” Batson said.
The department was also unaware that Chavez-Alvarado was infected because “his address that was reported was not in Santa Barbara County,” Batson said.
According to an emailed statement from Hazel Davalos, community organizing director at the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), Chavez-Alvarado was living at Motel 6 on East Main Street at the time of his death. Davalos said that the company contracting the guest workers, Alco Harvesting, houses them at Hotel Santa Maria, which the Sun confirmed after looking at the company’s H-2A Agricultural Clearance Form. Davalos also noted that the company is allegedly using the Motel 6 and Colonial Hotel to quarantine workers.
Batson did not name the specific hotels or facilities being used for quarantine and isolation purposes, but she did state that the quarantine and isolation location is separate from the housing facility. She added that public health officials toured the housing facility as part of their investigation, after being made aware of the death. She recalled from the tour that some hotel rooms housed up to four people.
After learning of Chavez-Alvarado’s death, the county started investigating the situation and determined that there was an outbreak, Batson said. There were already seven positive cases when the county declared it an outbreak, she added.
Upon identifying the outbreak, the county began working with Alco Harvesting, the company contracting the guest workers and consultants hired by Alco for disease mitigation, to conduct mass testing of the facility and monitor the situation.
Davalos said that, days before news broke of Chavez-Alvarado’s death, public health officials were in conversation with CAUSE and other community partners to identify the various H-2A housing facilities in the county in an effort to prepare for a potential outbreak. Davalos commended these efforts, though she said she wished it had happened sooner.
Batson said that there are currently no additional deaths associated with the outbreak to report, and there have been no hospitalizations.
Davalos said she hopes that the outbreak will lead public health officials to become more involved with H-2A living and working conditions in the future, even beyond the pandemic.
“Now it’s really a matter of looking forward, how we’re going to prevent something like this from happening again, and exploring how public health can serve as a local enforcement for agriculture, during the pandemic and beyond,” she said.
The Sun reached out for comment from Bonipak Produce, the local grower that Alco Harvesting supplies workers to, but the company did not respond before press time.