MECCA, Calif. — Dust swirled in the air as Luz Gallegos parked her SUV on the side of a dirt road. She had just learned that her aunt died of COVID-19 — the third family member to succumb to the disease in only two weeks.
She stepped out of her car at about 11:30 a.m. onto a bell pepper farm in this agricultural community in the Coachella Valley, a little northwest of the Salton Sea.
Gallegos, a daughter of farmworkers who had worked in the fields herself, had only 15 minutes to make what she considered a life-or-death pitch to roughly 20 workers who had just finished a break.
The farm had already seen two workers fall ill to COVID-19.
“We’re losing people in our community each day,” she said.
Listen to an audio version of this story below. Courtesy of California Healthline and Radio Bilingüe.
Gallegos, now executive director of the immigrant advocacy group TODEC Legal Center, came to dispel myths about the COVID-19 vaccines and urge the farmworkers to get vaccinated. Farmworkers, who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, are also among the most hesitant to get the shots.
Some worry about the vaccines’ safety and potential side effects, or how they could affect people with underlying health conditions, like diabetes. Others express the unfounded rumor that the government will use the vaccines to implant chips into their arms, leading to their being tracked and deported.
“This community lives in fear,” Gallegos said. “They don’t have any confidence in the government.”
A study out in late January from the University of California-San Francisco found that farmworkers and other agricultural workers had the third-highest risk of death during the pandemic in California, after cooks and packaging machine operators.
“That’s higher than doctors or nurses,” said Alicia Riley, an epidemiology and biostatistics postdoctoral scholar at UCSF who worked on the study. “With vaccination, we now have a new tool available to protect these workers who have endured the highest rate of excess mortality during the pandemic.”
Since October, Gallegos has been visiting farms throughout Riverside County.
She just got the first dose of vaccine herself, a detail she shared with the farmworkers gathered around her. “I didn’t get any side effects, but some say it feels like a bruise on your arm,” she told them in Spanish.
Gallegos had started off the talk by claiming a victory: “We won. They’re going to prioritize farmworkers in the first phases of the vaccine.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed last week that farmworkers will be prioritized for the shots, along with health care workers, people age 65 and up, and workers in education, child care, emergency services, and the food and agricultural industries.
Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, said agricultural workers check all the boxes when it comes to vulnerability: They often work in close proximity, travel from farm to farm across county borders, live in crowded housing and in multigenerational households, and lack health care. “We know that this is a large task,” Tellefson Torres said. “But there are different levels of vulnerability in our society right now, and I can’t emphasize enough that we need to take care of those who are nurturing us right now.”