Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Groups rush to get Florida farm workers vaccinated

Published:Thursday | April 1, 2021 | 11:40 AM
In this March 24, 2021 photo, farm workers load a truck with tomatoes harvested at a farm in Delray Beach, 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 authorized to receive the shots. (AP Photo/Cody Jackson)

MIAMI (AP) — It’s a race against time for nonprofits, organisations, and officials who are trying to vaccinate thousands of farm workers who were denied priority access in Florida but now have to travel north to harvest crops in other regions.

Farm worker advocates are asking officials to quickly mobilise to areas such as Homestead, south of Miami, and Immokalee, east of Naples, and to be more lenient when requiring proof of residency now that the state has lowered the vaccine eligibility age.

They say many farm workers are in the country illegally and don’t have a driver’s license or other documents required as an alternative.

Top officials with Miami-Dade County told activists and farm workers Wednesday at a virtual roundtable on vaccine distribution not to worry about the documents and focus instead on outreach and gathering groups of farm workers ready to get the shot.

“I think we can handle the IDs. We just need to get the numbers and get the places. I need to know where you want us, how many. That’s what I am looking for,” said Frank Rollason, director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County.

Groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have decried that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did not prioritise farm workers in the state’s vaccine rollout like other governors did.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she has been asking the governor since December to allow farm workers to get the shot.

The vaccination plan restricted community clinics from starting inoculations because many of these populations were not yet eligible by age.

Since January, the state began requiring proof of Florida residency, adding another hurdle for some workers.

DeSantis’s vaccine motto has been “seniors first,” with a few exceptions such as people with underlying health conditions, older police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

“We were restricted for a long time. Until recently, it was still over 65, and then it was over 50. And most farm workers are younger than that,” said Dr Emily Ptaszek, head of the Healthcare Network, a clinic that serves migrant farm workers in Immokalee.

Florida lowered the age to 40 on Monday and will open it up to everyone next Monday.

Lupe Gonzalo, an organiser at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says farm workers are uniquely exposed to the virus because they often live in crowded conditions and travel together in vans or buses.

Gonzalo says many of them suffer from medical conditions that put them at high risk for severe COVID-19.

“It has been an uphill battle for the county and the state to send resources for our community. Even when they deem us as essential farm workers, they treat us as if we are disposable,” Gonzalo said.

Last year, mass testing in rural communities such as Immokalee had a late start and only after the coalition contacted international aid group Doctors Without Borders.

Immokalee and other immigrant communities experienced outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Florida has about 100,000 farm workers, and Dr Ptaszek, from the Immokalee clinic, says about one-fifth of those are in Immokalee and soon many will be going north to states like Georgia, Tennessee, and New Jersey.

“They start to leave in mid-April. They will be gone completely certainly by June so we have a limited time to get this done,” she said, adding she is planning a clinic next week to vaccinate 500 to 600 people.

For three days this week, the state’s Division of Emergency Management was vaccinating hundreds in Immokalee who meet the state criteria.

Social media posts circulated telling people to take a pay stub as a form of ID.

Teams were also sent in mobile vans to vaccinate agriculture workers in Homestead.

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