Food and farm workers wait for vaccine as California prioritizes elders

Peninsula Premier Admin

The dark rooms no longer smell like rich compost. Gone are the tall shelves that once held trays of thousands of tiny fungi. The floors are swept clean, soon to hold chairs and tables.

Monterey Mushrooms, the nation’s largest mushroom farm, is ready to open its on-site vaccination clinic. All that’s missing are vaccines.

“We’re good to go,” said Shah Kazemi, owner of the company that aims to protect its own 1,200 workers as well as field workers, packers and processors from the region’s other farms. “This is a public health crisis.”

WATSONVILLE, CA – FEBRUARY 4: Monterey Mushrooms owner Shah Kazemi is photographed in an empty building used to grow mushrooms on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Watsonville, Calif. Kazemi hopes to use empty mushroom growing rooms as COVID-19 vaccination sites for his employees as well as field workers, packers, and processors from the region’s other farms. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Frustrated, food and agricultural businesses — whose 3.4 million high-risk “essential workers” thought they were near the front of the line to receive a vaccine, right after medical workers and people in nursing homes — now don’t know when it’ll be their turn.

With hospitals dangerously full, California has recommended that counties broaden their top priority groups to include older adults, hoping to lessen the burden and reduce deaths. On Wednesday, a coalition of Bay Area health officers urged all health systems to prioritize vaccines for people 65 and older, a group at greatest risk of dying, and move essential workers such as farm workers further down the list.

So the low-income, largely Latino workforce is waiting.

“Farmworkers are small fry,” said San Jose physician Dr. Walter Newman, who is ready to deploy 200 volunteer medical and nursing students from Stanford and San Jose State University to vaccinate farmworkers at Monterey Mushrooms and other rural sites in Monterey, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

WATSONVILLE, CA – FEBRUARY 4: A farm workers pick crops in a field along West Beach Street on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Watsonville, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

What’s needed, he insists, is an official “carve out” of vaccine supplies for food and agricultural workers.

“The feds take their cut, for military and government officials. Then it goes to the counties. Then it goes to the big boys: Kaiser, Stanford, Sutter, Dignity,” and other health systems, said Newman. “Then it goes to health care providers and people over age 65. Nowhere are there doses for farmworkers.”

Working in close quarters and crowded housing, often carpooling to work, these workers are at elevated risk, according to recent research.  A UC San Francisco study found that COVID-19 deaths among California Latinos were 36% higher than among the average state population — with a 59% increase among Latinos who were food/agriculture workers.

WATSONVILLE, CA – FEBRUARY 4: Monterey Mushrooms employees work in a packing facility on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Watsonville, Calif. The company hopes to use empty mushroom growing rooms as COVID-19 vaccination sites for employees as well as field workers, packers, and processors from the region’s other farms. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

But they’re caught in a war of mixed messages between state and county governments.

According to Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary, deciding whom to vaccinate in this current distribution system, Phase 1B Tier 1, is up to each county.

“Counties have the option to vaccinate individuals in the food and ag industry, on those essential frontlines, who are keeping food in stores and on tables,” he said at a recent press briefing.

But counties say they’ve been told to vaccinate only those individuals who are older than 65, said Dr. Jeff Smith, Santa Clara County executive. “We’re still functioning under the belief that we have to finish the 65 and older group before we move on to others.”

Counties add that they now don’t have enough vaccines to widen distribution. “No date certain right now,” said Monterey County’s Karen Smith. “It depends on supply.”

An estimated 23 million doses are required to fully protect all 11.5 million people in Phase 1A and 1B categories, said Dr. Erica Pan, state epidemiologist with the California  Department of Public Health. But the state has received fewer than 7 million doses, according to data from the CDPH.

Only a few counties, such as Riverside and Fresno, have begun official programs to protect food and agriculture workers.

“At the local level, many counties have not yet triggered the ‘farm worker’ category for prioritization. That’s been incredibly limiting,” said Diana Tellefson Torres of the United Farm Workers Foundation, which is working to help design mobile vaccination clinics where farm workers live and work.

“We want to make sure that they’re prioritized not just in writing, but on the ground – out in the field, in the packing houses,” she said.

To help fill the gap, some local hospitals are hosting spontaneous ‘pop up’ clinics, using their own vaccine supplies. In Watsonville this week, a clinic hosted by Dignity Health Dominican Hospital, the Farm Bureau and the California Strawberry Commission vaccinated 1,000 Santa Cruz County agricultural workers, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

California’s agricultural sector is the most important in the United States, leading the nation’s production in over 77 different products including dairy and a number of fruit and vegetable specialty crops. Combined with food processing, it is the second largest economic sector behind computers and electronics.

This month, Tulare County workers are busy picking navel oranges, lemons and tangelo mandarins. In Fresno County, they’re weeding wheat fields, pruning fruit trees and repairing drip lines. Monterey County’s strawberries, which thrive in the region’s cool and sandy soil, will soon be ready for harvesting.

Food and agricultural workers are among the most challenging people to reach during the nation’s largest mass vaccination campaign, say experts.

More than three-quarters don’t have insurance. More than 10% have never seen a doctor, according to a recent survey by the United Farm Workers Foundation. They may be mistrustful; according to the Center for Farmworker Families, 70% of the workers planting and harvesting crops in California are undocumented. They may live in one county and work in another. Some are migratory, following the harvest season.

Many do not speak English or may be computer illiterate, so they can’t schedule online appointments. And they don’t have the time or schedule flexibility to travel to a vaccination site.

“They’re working six, sometimes seven days a week,” said Torres. “They’re working long hours. Many don’t have a vehicle.”

Monterey Mushrooms says its solution is simple, straightforward and eases the county’s organizational burden. It has 14 empty mushroom growing rooms in its idled facility. There’s plenty of parking. It will provide staffers to help with registration, to support Dr. Newman and his team.

“These are the people who put food on our tables,” said Kazemi. “We just need the vaccines.”

Contributed by local news sources

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