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Farmworker vaccination effort overcame hesitancy

Issue Date: January 26, 2022
Jess Brown Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, Executive Director
Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau

Two years ago, we were just hearing about a virus originating in China that was spreading across the world. There was much uncertainty as to how this would impact our lives in California. Each day was a different story, with more concern building.

In a matter of 45 days, we were experiencing a shelter-in-place order. This was something no one had ever experienced, and its impact on agriculture was uncertain.

Fortunately, those in charge realized that not all industries could shelter in place and work from home. We needed our food supply to continue.

Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau became a source of information to our members. Fortunately, Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau has incredible leaders, so a COVID-19 task force was put together. It led to weekly meetings with county health officials to help create health safety guidelines for agriculture.

The task force worked to bridge gaps in terms of resources, such as isolation housing for infected employees, and worked to harmonize directives with adjacent counties. It connected with other organizations, such as the California Strawberry Commission, to get help in providing translation services and document review, and brought needed "boots on the ground" to report what was really going on in the farmworker community to the county health department. This relationship proved valuable to both agriculture and county officials.

One year ago, the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau was given the responsibility of being the first in the nation to do a mass vaccination of farmworkers. This was a great opportunity, but we also realized that there was a hesitancy among farmworkers about the vaccinations.

Our task force realized that this endeavor had to be managed well so that we could create ambassadors within the farmworker community to speak positively about the vaccines. We also realized that we needed to distribute the vaccines in a fair manner.

Our task force developed an equitable formula that ensured that farms of all size and type would be included in this first effort. In less than one week, we set up a clinic that vaccinated 1,300 farmworkers.

While the SCCFB was able to protect the farmworker community, the benefits of what was done by our industry throughout the COVID experience extended to the whole community.

The shelter-in-place orders, closure of parks and open spaces, unemployment due to the closure of nonessential industries—forcing people to stay home—combined with our high-density housing, created an ideal environment for the spread of COVID.

Our farmworkers, however, were able to work every day, usually outdoors, while receiving multiple health checks. If symptoms appeared, isolation could be quickly arranged. The rate of infection acquired on farms was almost nil. And when our early mass vaccine program started, many of those people vaccinated resided in these high COVID-risk areas.

Our early vaccination of farmworkers, many of whom were a little older than the average age farmworker, did help to create a group of "vaccine ambassadors" who helped give the greater community and incoming younger workers trust in the vaccine process.

We are now two years into this pandemic. Who could've ever predicted that we would have a higher infection rate now than we did at any time in the past two years? The Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau COVID-19 Task Force has continued to work with county health officials to provide farmworkers booster-shot opportunities and rapid-testing kits, which are in short supply on a national level.

It's hard to tell if or when this pandemic is coming to an end. But throughout this historic challenge, the agricultural community in Santa Cruz County has sought to protect its workers—and it has showed its resilience by continuing to provide food locally, nationally and worldwide.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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