California’s Vaccine Rollout Has Yet to Reach Most Farmworkers | Civil Eats

California’s Vaccine Rollout Has Yet to Reach Most Farmworkers

While some large ag companies are working to bring on-site vaccination stations to their workers, complications abound in protecting these front-line workers from COVID-19.

Travel nurse Tiquella Russell of Texas prepares to administer a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to a resident at a clinic at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles on February 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Late last month, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm received a last-minute call from her neighbor Jim Durst. His farm, Durst Organic Growers in the Capay Valley northwest of Sacramento, was hosting an onsite vaccination clinic for the farmworkers he employs and those on neighboring farms—about 200 total. As the day drew to a close there were about 20 doses left and he thought of Full Belly, and offered the extras to Redmond’s staff—if they could get to the farm quickly.

Redmond employs about 65 farmworkers throughout the year, and even getting close to 20 of her staff vaccinated was a relief. “I think we would have a much better, less stressful season if we all get vaccinated,” she said.

Her farm relies on additional seasonal workers to help out during peak harvest season, many of whom live in high-density quarters and work in close proximity to each other—conditions that have caused huge outbreaks in farmworker communities. Getting her staff vaccinated before new workers arrive for the spring harvest is urgent, but it’s unclear how and when the rest of her staff will get their shots.

In Yolo County, where Full Belly Farm and Durst Organic Growers are located, county public health services are working with farms that have more than 100 employees to set up onsite vaccination clinics—100 workers being the minimum number to make the involved set-up worthwhile and efficient, from the county’s perspective. In other counties around California, including Fresno, public health departments are partnering with agricultural companies to host job-site vaccination sites for their workers.

For many farmers and farmworkers, determining where vaccines are being administered and who can get access has been a logistical maelstrom.

Even when the pandemic upended our food system, shuttering restaurants, schools, and farmers’ markets overnight, workers in farm fields and processing plants continued working in high-density environments, often lacking sufficient personal protective equipment.

“They never stopped working during the pandemic, they were never put on pause,” said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit California Farmworker Foundation (CFF).

In early February, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that farmworkers were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. But the rollout has been haphazard at best. That’s why some farms are taking it upon themselves to ensure that their workers get immunized. And many advocates are navigating the system trying to connect the dots for these marginalized workers.

Navigating a Chaotic Rollout

For many farmers and farmworkers, determining where vaccines are being administered and who can get access has been a logistical maelstrom, farmworker advocates say. Every county has its own protocols and limited vaccine availability, and it’s unclear whether vaccines will be administered at job sites or through county-organized clinics.

“If you go to the county and say, ‘Why aren’t agricultural workers getting any vaccines?’ they’ll say the state doesn’t allow them to [take action]; you go to the state, and the state tells you it’s the county’s fault. Nobody wants to take responsibility,” said Hernandez.

The lack of a central authority or protocol means Hernandez keeps track of each county’s vaccine availability, coordinating with county public health departments, state agencies, and private agricultural businesses. Added to that, Hernandez notes that many farmworkers are likely to move among counties, following jobs as harvest seasons shift, with some even returning to Mexico—a fact that complicates getting farmworkers their second dose of the vaccine. The newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just one dose, might be helpful in these situations, but it’s unclear when and whether farmworkers will be receiving them.

So far, Hernandez has overseen vaccination initiatives that include pop-up clinics at farms as well as more ad hoc distributions, at times shuttling workers to sites where there are leftover doses. In the Central Valley’s Tulare County, for example, Hernandez coordinates the distribution of surplus doses from local sites.

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Experts estimate that only a small portion of the roughly 800,000 farmworkers in California have received their first shot. In the Coachella Valley in southeast California, for example, Hernandez estimates that between 750 and 1,000 farmworkers are vaccinated every week. The Central Valley is trailing far behind, having so far only vaccinated about 800 farmworkers total. And Kern County, where farm work accounts for a quarter of all employment, just announced it would start vaccinating farmworkers one week ago. Coachella’s Riverside County has been the most proactive, largely because it has received a consistent supply, according to Hernandez. At the end of February, Santa Clara County announced a program to bring mobile vaccination clinics to 1,000 farmworkers at a large ag employer and nearby smaller farms.

Hernandez hopes to see more vaccines administered at job sites and in the rural communities where farmworkers live. He is skeptical that the mega-vaccination sites promised by Governor Gavin Newsom will be effective for this group. Based on polling by the CFF, a lot of Latinx farmworkers are also hesitant to get the vaccine after reading misinformation about vaccine side effects on social media sites as well as general mistrust of the health care system. For that reason, he says going to where the workers are tends to be more effective, because the workers can hear directly from medical providers. “It’s not just about providing the vaccine, but also providing that education piece,” Hernandez said.

Those fears may be compounded by the state’s recent shift to putting Blue Shield of California, the nonprofit health insurance company, in charge of vaccine-distribution efforts. Farmworker organizers told the Los Angeles Times that the company has not done enough outreach or education with migrant communities to make a vaccination campaign successful.

There was a lot of hesitation with COVID testing among farmworkers at Full Belly Farm, too, Redmond observed. But when the county set up a one-time testing site on her farm, many of her staff ended up participating. “When it was right there in front of them, they actually did get tested, especially when their friends did and they were like, ‘Oh, it didn’t hurt, you should go do it.’ I think that the same would be true with a vaccine,” she said.

Helping Workers, and Small-Scale Farmers, Get to the Front of the Line

Smaller farms are at somewhat of a disadvantage right now: Larger institutions are likely to receive vaccinations first because doing so is more efficient says Evan Wiig, director of communications at Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF). “As a statewide organization, it’s really hard for us to respond when every single county is doing something different,” he said.

“We’re just trying to make sure that the people who are usually at the back of the line get to the front.”

For his part, Wiig has focused on helping small farms in Sonoma County connect their workers with surplus vaccines—often unsuccessfully. “Just when you think you’ve got enough vaccines, you find out they’ve already been taken by another group,” he said. Apart from even finding available doses for farmworkers, Wiig notes, the bigger question is: Who gets counted as a farmworker?

In Sonoma County, the answer to that question isn’t straightforward. Many farmworkers also work as caregivers and housecleaners, and take on part-time seasonal field jobs, according to Christy Lubin, executive director of the Graton Day Labor Center. Half of the clients she works with are employed in multiple sectors, and that doesn’t take the various kinds of essential work the Latinx community performs into account.

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“Most farmworkers [live with] family [who are] working in restaurants, in grocery stores, cleaning houses, taking care of old people. It’s a struggle getting the county to understand that Latinx essential workers are all of this,” Lubin said.

Lubin helps coordinate vaccine appointments for the center’s members, reaching out through Google forms and WhatsApp groups to members who are part of the informal economy and therefore won’t be vaccinated by their employers.

“We’re just trying to make sure that the people who are usually at the back of the line get to the front,” said Lubin.

Hannah Ricker is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about sustainable agriculture, international development, and gender politics. She currently attends the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Read more >

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