STOCKTON — Farmworker advocate Luis Magaña looked at dozens of volunteers working inside Edison High School’s Grant Taggart Gymnasium.
The volunteers packed washable face coverings, hand sanitizer and education materials into boxes that will be distributed where the coronavirus is pervasive in San Joaquin County as part of a collaborative project between San Joaquin County Public Health Services, Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center, United Way of San Joaquin, Stockton Unified School District, Gospel Center Rescue Mission, Community Medical Centers, El Concilio and several more partners.
The goal this week is to assemble 10,000 coronavirus prevention kits that will go to organizations in the county struck hardest by the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. In the coming weeks, some 100,000 kits will be assembled and distributed, and possibly another 100,000. The masks were procured by San Joaquin County with federal funds from the CARES Act. Another 600 washable masks handmade by more than 20 women representing Lodi Rotary Foundation, Calvary Presbyterian Church and the Japanese American Citizens League were donated. The collective effort is part of "Mask On," a multiplatform education campaign, the brainchild of Kristen Birtwhistle, chief executive officer and president of the United Way of San Joaquin.
Since May, with assistance from Dignity Health, Magaña has distributed food and face coverings to area farm workers. But he lacks the resources and funds to fully impact the Hispanic community, especially farm laborers, that accounts for 41.1% of the county’s population (762,148), 29.9% of the county’s 11,209 cases, and 38.4% of deaths countywide from COVID-19, according to Wednesday’s San Joaquin Public Health Services dashboard.
"Unfortunately, that is a population that needs to be out working, that doesn’t have the capacity to be telecommuting, like most of us do," said Jose Serrano, project manager with United Way of San Joaquin. "They’re putting their lives at risk. So more than ever, we need to come together. We need to take care of not only ourselves, but our families."
Magaña said the numbers of positive cases are under-reported by the farmworker community.
"At least one in one crew of 10 or more workers will get positive," Magaña said. "And they are not reporting the symptoms to the foremen because they will stop the work and they can lose their jobs."
Tammy Shaff, director of community health at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center, said distribution of the kits will be prioritized. The first 5,000 will go to farmworkers. Shaff said the effort does not stop there.
"Everyone needs to wear a mask, and we need to make sure we are providing the education on the why and the how, and then make sure they have access to it," Shaff said. "So, this will be ongoing."
Birtwhistle said some kits already have been distributed to community centers and work camps in the Latino community.
"Their numbers are so much higher in terms of coronavirus positive testing," Birtwhistle said. "It’s impacting their livelihood and their work and their families, so we have to focus on that."
San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park said she expressed at a recent San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting her desire to start a public awareness campaign to promote masking. Within a day, she was contacted by Birtwhistle and Don Wiley, chief executive officer and president of St. Joseph’s Medical Center.
"They wanted to be involved," Park said. "So, I said, ‘That’s good you want to be involved because I don’t know where to start.’ "
The "Mask On" campaign includes more than 80 community members whose photo will appear on billboards, bus wraps, and social media posts with the caption "I Mask On For …" and their reason written on their face covering. For instance, Stockton Unified School District interim Superintendent Brian Biedermann masks on for students; Wayne Richardson, chief executive officer of the Gospel Center Rescue Mission, masks on for the homeless.
"Everyone has a reason to mask," said Birtwhistle, "and we’re trying to share that."
Contact reporter Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@bobhighfill.