Fri | Dec 3, 2021

US clinics waiting to vaccinate farmworkers: ‘Our hands are tied’

Published:Wednesday | March 10, 2021 | 2:13 PM
In this May 12, 2020, file photo, farmworkers harvest beans during the coronavirus outbreak in Homestead, Florida. Many US health centres that serve agricultural workers across the nation are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine directly from the federal government in a programme created by the Biden administration. But in some states, farmworkers are not yet in the priority groups authorised to receive the shots. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

With Georgia’s sweet onion harvest approaching and COVID-19 vaccine arriving in increasing quantities from the federal government, migrant health centres around the state want to start vaccinating farmworkers.

But there’s a catch.

In Georgia and many other places around the US, such efforts are blocked by state policies that give priority to other groups.

“Our hands are tied,” said East Georgia Healthcare Center CEO Jennie Wren Denmark, whose agency runs 13 clinics, including one in Vidalia, home of the celebrated Vidalia onion.

Her clinics’ vaccines will instead go to patients on the state eligibility list, which was expanded this week to teachers.

Public health authorities have said in their defence that drawing up the priority lists is a complex balancing act that requires them to take into account outbreak data, the risks to various categories of workers and vital industries, and the limited supply of vaccines.

Farmworkers and activists are upset.

“Waiting and waiting has some people angry and causes despair,” said Edgar Franks, a 41-year-old leader of the agricultural union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, or Families United for Justice, who works in the blueberry fields on weekends in the Mount Vernon, Washington, area.

“We’re essential, but we are not really treated as essential.”

Leticia Cuevas, 35, who works pruning wine grapes near Prosser, Washington, said: “I hope that everything could return to normal and that we would all be treated equally. We all deserve dignity.”

Farmworkers run an elevated risk of getting infected.

They often live in crowded bunkhouses and eat together in dining halls. Those who toil outdoors often travel to the fields together in vans or buses.

Others work in bustling packing houses.

An estimated 9,000 agricultural workers in the US have died of COVID-19, said Jason Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

Nearly a half-million have been infected, according to a Purdue estimate, with the highest numbers in Texas, California, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, and Minnesota.

“Agricultural workers are important for the security of our food supply,” Lusk said, noting that supermarket prices went up last year when COVID-19 outbreaks shut down meatpacking plants.

“Making sure we have the people available to plant and harvest will make sure our grocery stores aren’t empty or our food prices don’t rise.”

Last week, more than 60 health centers that serve agricultural workers in 21 states began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine directly from the federal government in a programme created by the Biden administration.

But in most of those states, including Texas, New York, Georgia, and Florida, farmworkers are not yet in the priority groups authorised to receive the shots.

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