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New vaccine allocation aims to reach farm workers as second season approaches during pandemic

Source: The Stockton Record

The recent announcement by the governor's office that 40% of upcoming vaccine allocations in the state will be distributed among the most vulnerable residents that have been impacted by COVID-19, is welcome relief to the cherry industry, where vaccinating staff is an urgent need.

The cherry industry has not only worked through a year of COVID-19 protocols, but will be packing and exporting its second harvest during the pandemic. 

“I think everybody is trying to get some clarity” after the state’s transition for Blue Cross Blue Shield to manage vaccination distribution said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Cherry Export Association. “It’s a much bigger process.” 

However, Zanobini thinks “things are rapidly evolving on that front”, as factors for vaccination become more accommodating for agricultural workers. 

Ag workers critical to SJ economy

San Joaquin County has 920,000 acres of agricultural land, which generates more than $5.7 billion for the local economy. 

Considering production, processing, multiplier effects and employment generated through the county’s agricultural land – which is bigger than the state of Rhode Island – there is no denying the importance of what farmers add to the county’s economy. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues through the county, access to vaccination sites has been a recurrent challenge for agricultural workers and their communities, as The Record reported. 

Agricultural contractors have databases “to contact people that are out there that possibly the county or the state doesn’t have,” said Guy Cotton, CFO of OG Packing.  

Cotton told The Record that packing houses have a better ability to reach out and find agricultural workers “and have them come in and get them vaccinated.” 

As vaccination efforts increased across California, the state is “still falling short,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference in Stockton earlier this week. “We have to go bolder, we have to go bigger.”   

The governor's office found that households that earn $40,000 yearly were twice as much impacted by the pandemic than those who earned $100,000. Furthermore, households that earned $120,000 a year have twice as much access to vaccines than $40,000 households. 

The additional efforts announced to push vaccine access equity will focus on communities who fall into the low quartile of the Healthy Places Index. By attending those in most need, those most exposed, “that’s the way we’ll get real progress,” said Newsom. 

Newsom said the Latino community has been the most disproportionately affected in the state. They are also the ones who have been hardest hit in San Joaquin County too, The Record reported. 

California, San Joaquin County partnering with community-based organizations

“We know that it’s been a challenge, we know it’s been an issue for these folks not knowing where to go get these vaccines,” said Jose Rodriguez, president and CEO of El Concilio.  

Through their work with Latino and agricultural workers, Rodriguez knows “many of them are anxious to get the vaccine, they just don’t know where to go.” 

Both state and county are partnering with CBOs (community-based organizations) not just to coordinate mobile vaccination sites, but to increase translations, outreach and distribution of accurate information through trusted community sources.  

“We are looking forward to working with CBOs and getting that vaccine into the arms of the people who are deserving,” said San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Maggie Park.  

The state’s effort to allocate 40% of vaccines for those in most need “is very meaningful to a great proportion of our citizens,” she said.  

Be it private or public sector, “we have an obligation, and that obligation is to get involved, get involved in outreach, get involved in our community,” said California State Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua.  

“We tend to forget that during the toughest times that we were going through this (pandemic), our farm neighbor workers were there for us, and we need to be there for them,” he told The Record.  

Efforts like these – vaccine access equity by the county, state, and federal agencies – do not mean that vaccines won’t be distributed to the rest of the population.  

They destress and facilitate the bigger challenges to reach those who may not have the same access to health care, meaning more people get vaccinated faster. “We are not trying to crowd the line, we are just trying to be in line,” said Villapudua. 

“A farmworker will have the worst toothache, will be hurting and know that they have to see a doctor, but they will pick work over that,” he added. “They won’t miss over work, they won’t. They prefer to make sure that they are getting money on their table.” 

By working directly with farm labor contractors, this marginalized sector of the county’s population will be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines. 

In partnership with San Joaquin General Hospital and County Clinics, OG Packing has vaccinated 150 employees – theirs and those of other packing houses – who are older than 65. They have more clinics scheduled and hope to continue vaccinating their employees. 

The most vulnerable groups identified by the state are “exactly who we are hitting," said Cotton. “It’s pretty much a representation of California.” 

Cherry season starts next month, both on-field and within packing houses. “We want to make sure than anybody that has the ability – that wants to be vaccinated – can be vaccinated,” said Cotton.