In a grape vineyard west of Wasco, more than a dozen people were groaning in pain, rubbing irritated eyes and crying for help Wednesday morning.
Some were hiding in fields for fear of deportation. Others left for home.
They’d all been infected with an unidentified herbicide – or at least that’s what a strike team of Kern County Public Health Services Department employees was supposed to think before arriving at the farm.
The ploy was part of a training exercise, the importance of which becomes more prevalent as strike teams have responded this year to two pesticide exposures in the county, including one that sickened more than 50 field workers. The culprit? Chlorpyrifos, a drug the EPA once said was dangerous to human health, but was deregulated under the Trump Administration.
“This training for our strike team plays a very significant role for our local farm workers. They’re worried about this,” Public Health Director Matt Constantine said before the drill started. “They don’t happen often, but when they do, we want to be ready.”
So Public Health employees from all departments got into character, which Constantine drew up for them on symptom cards he handed out the previous day.
Heike Ursula Duran, a graphic artist in the communications department, played a loud, aggressive woman who only spoke German. While there probably aren’t many field hands who exclusively speak German, the point was to emulate the difficulty of communication, Constantine said. Try breaking that language barrier without a translator.
Melissa McCormick, a fiscal support supervisor who works in finance? She became Juanita Gonzales, and all she wanted was some medical attention.
Juan Vega Jr., a department analyst, played the role of the undocumented field worker who scurried throughout the fields, occasionally shrieking in pain, as public health workers attempted to find everyone infected.
He even dragged a couple of news reporters into the mix who were there to cover the simulation, prodding them to ask difficult questions, disregard directions from Public Health officials and “just be your regular annoying selves.”
Public Health’s primary role in these events is to identify the pesticide used, provide medical advice to those exposed and notify ambulance companies and hospitals of the overspray in case anyone infected transported themselves to an emergency room. In such a case, that person could infect everyone in the ER, Constantine said.
The simulation was, in a word, chaotic. And that’s exactly how a typical response to such an overspray would be, Constantine said.
“There’s always confusion. It’s confusing for hours,” Constantine said.
The strike team arrived roughly 45 minutes after the initial call, well after first-responders would have begun administering first aid.
Some field workers were posted on a grassy field, and about half a dozen others were still in the vineyards about 100 yards west of there. Strike team workers didn’t know about them until the second hour.
Strike team members contended with pushy reporters who didn’t listen to directions to stay in a media area, field workers who, separated from their family members, headed back into the vineyards to find them and irate farmers.
“They’re gaining very valuable experience,” Constantine said of his employees. “Their intentions are good, but they’ve made a lot of mistakes that we will review this afternoon.”
One such mistake? A well-meaning strike team member transported a contaminated victim in their vehicle from the fields to a staging area where decontaminations were taking place.
“The vehicle is now potentially contaminated,” Constantine said.
Another mistake? Before first responders arrived, victims were complaining of irritated eyes. They had no way to wash their eyes, and it’s not something they would typically take on.
Farms, however, are required to have emergency eyewash stations, said Donna Fenton, director of the public health department’s environmental health division. They could have directed them to those stations had they known they were there.
“This is a learning process for them so we can have them run into these issues now rather than during the real thing,” Fenton said.