Santa Clara County vaccine administrators inoculate a farmworker at Monterey Mushrooms in Morgan Hill, California on March 31, 2021. (Jana Kadah/Bay City News)

Nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, employees across California’s agriculture industry continue to struggle with access to health care and reliable health information, a group of health care and agriculture experts said Wednesday.

More than 500,000 state residents work across the agriculture industry, picking crops and working at produce packing facilities.

Those employees are often subject to densely packed shared housing, poor air quality and crowded work sites that have made avoiding the virus extremely difficult.

And while state and local public health officials have taken steps to disseminate health care information in multiple languages and through local community groups, farmworkers have also been harmed by misinformation on messaging applications like WhatsApp about the available COVID vaccines.

“The problem is not that we do not have resources, the problem is how are we going to use the things that we know right now,” said Dr. Ilan Shapiro, the chief health correspondent and medical affairs officer with AltaMed Health Services. “We’ve had from 2020 until 2022 to learn a lot about COVID-19.”

Shapiro joined other experts across the state for a panel discussion Wednesday to discuss how to reduce health care and outcome disparities among farmworkers and the state’s immigrant population.

Ed Kissam, a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Farmworker Health Advisory Committee, estimated that roughly half of the state’s farmworkers have completed their initial vaccination series, roughly 20 percent lower than the state and national vaccination rates.

In addition, while roughly 20 percent of California residents have received the recently approved booster vaccine that offers protection against two strains of the omicron COVID variant, the booster vaccination rate among farmworkers in many of the state’s agricultural counties remains in the single digits.

“That’s why treatment is so important,” Kissam said. “Because without being up to date with vaccination, there’s going to be a disproportionate number of people who are at risk of very serious illness.”

The panelists commended the state for its effort to make health care available to low-income residents and immigrants via the expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an expansion of Medi-Cal into law that made it available to all income-eligible adults age 50 and up, regardless of their immigration status, as those who are living in the country without documentation do not qualify for Medicaid coverage.

Since 2016, the state has also provided Medi-Cal benefits to children and young adults through age 25, regardless of their immigration status, provided that they meet the program’s income eligibility thresholds.

The state plans to further expand Medi-Cal eligibility starting Jan. 1, 2024, to the roughly 700,000 current state residents between the ages of 26 and 49 who meet the program’s income requirements.

“We need to … make sure that we do not roll back to 2019,” Shapiro said, referencing the pandemic’s highlighting of health care access disparities. “It’s essential for our community and it’s essential for the entire country to make sure that our farmworkers are healthy, taken care of.”