Story by Caitlin Antonios
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In late January, Monterey County’s Board of Supervisors sent a letter to state leaders, urging them to prioritize its 64,000 farmworkers in one of the nation’s largest agricultural regions. A month later, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited a mobile vaccine clinic in Fresno, pledging tens of thousands of extra doses for farmworkers.
In turn, Chris Valadez, president of a nonprofit organization of growers, was confident he could run a mass vaccine clinic to vaccinate thousands of farmworkers. His group, the Grower-Shipper Association, partnered with Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a community-based health care provider.
But in late February, the state and county were focusing on vaccinating people 65 and older, so they didn’t prioritize doses for farmworkers. With the Salinas Valley harvest season fast approaching, growers were worried that infections would start spreading, decimating their workforce.
We were ready to go out of the gates to just explode and begin serving a population that, I think, just wasn’t put in line, let alone in front of the line.Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association
So Valadez and the clinic made a decision: They cut out both Monterey County and the state, applying directly to the federal government for vaccine shipments. By March 6, they began operating a site that vaccinated 2,500 to 4,500 agricultural workers of all ages every Saturday. This program alone has now vaccinated 25,000, or 39%, of Monterey County’s farmworkers, according to their estimates.
“We were ready to go out of the gates to just explode and begin serving a population that, I think, just wasn’t put in line, let alone in front of the line,” Valadez said. “We had an opportunity to not only put them in line, but it’s only their line.”
The episode in Monterey County and similar concerns expressed by growers in Riverside County were revealed in emails obtained through Public Records Act requests filed by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project in collaboration with CalMatters.
The decision by state and county officials to prioritize Californians 65 and older delayed vaccinations for thousands of farmworkers for several weeks as infections began spreading, prompting growers and doctors to step in to fill the void.
When Monterey County finally reached out to say they had a batch of up to 1,500 vaccine doses for farmworkers, Valadez said no thanks.
“It’s all good,” Valadez wrote to Elsa Jimenez, Monterey’s director of health, in an email on March 22. “No need to update any further.” In a follow-up interview, Valadez called the state-provided doses “almost a moot point.” They were already running their vaccination site exclusively for farmworkers so they didn’t need them.
Monterey County officials said vaccine supplies were so limited in January and February that they had to prioritize high-risk seniors ahead of farmworkers.
“Nearly 70% of COVID-19 related fatalities in Monterey County were among those 65 years of age and older,” said Karen Smith, a spokesperson for Monterey County, in an email. “While vaccine supplies were limited, vaccination efforts were focused on those with the highest risk of hospitalization and death to save lives.”
A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health agreed, saying, “As soon as we were given enough supply from the federal government to open up eligibility further, we went right for farmworkers.”
In the meantime, infections surged among California’s farmworkers, who are vulnerable because they work and live in close conditions. About 49,000 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Purdue University vulnerability index.
“It’s taken some time to iron out all the wrinkles. Unfortunately, that’s time that we really didn’t have getting this really vulnerable workforce vaccinated,” said Heather Riden, program director for the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis.
Gaps in Vaccinating Farmworkers
Now that the Salinas Valley’s harvest season for lettuce and broccoli is in full swing, and with other crops arriving in spring and summer, health departments and community groups are trying to vaccinate as many farmworkers as they can, targeting those who are hesitant or hard to reach because of language barriers or lack of access.
“We know that there are gaps,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, which advocates for farmworkers. “Different areas of the state, like the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley, have lower vaccine numbers.”
Torres said to address those gaps, more resources are needed to partner community organizations with small mobile clinics.
Through a public-private partnership, California announced in February it would give extra doses and $52.7 million to 337 community based organizations as part of its COVID-19 Community-Based Outreach Campaign to reach vulnerable communities. Most of those groups, however, don’t assist farmworkers.
Some organizations that received state funding said they are using the monies for educational outreach and helping with registration language barriers. The UFW Foundation used some of its funds to set up a call center to coordinate appointments and registration.
Vision y Compromiso, which has promotores, or patient liaisons, in Kern, Tulare and Riverside counties, used the funds to pay staffers’ salaries, said Maria Lemus, the group’s executive director. The staffers knocked on fieldworkers’ doors in Tulare County, encouraging them to visit vaccine clinics and delivering food and other basics to infected workers.
But some groups that didn’t receive the state funds said they had more success vaccinating workers because they avoided the additional layers of bureaucracy.
For instance, one of the largest community-based organizations working with farmworkers in the Inland Empire — Growing Coachella Valley — said it has helped vaccinate more than 7,700 farmworkers through outreach and registration. They did not receive state funds.
Coachella Valley Growers Step Up
Large farms in the Inland Empire say they — not community groups — have been the ones working directly with local health departments to get field workers vaccinated. Growers say they tried to adopt an employer-dependent model like the Salinas Valley used.
“It was too messy adding so many people in between. They should have left it at the grower and the county,” said an administrator for a large vineyard in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging government partnerships.
Blaine Carian, co-owner of Desert Fresh, a Coachella Valley produce company, wrote to Riverside County health director Kim Saruwatari on Jan. 21, pleading for more doses for agricultural workers, according to emails.
“Our worry is that the County has abandoned the east valley,” Carian wrote in an email to Saruwatari.
Albert P. Keck II, president of Hadley Date Gardens, Inc, also begged the county to help. “Our workers have been battling through the most stressful year in memory and have been impacted personally by COVID at rates that seem to be 2 to 3 times the national average…We farmers are ready to quickly deploy the agricultural resources of the Coachella Valley in a mass vaccination effort,” he wrote.
“We are doing our best to keep them safe and motivated…and much of that is based on the hope that relief is close at hand…please help us.”
A Riverside County official emailed them back the next day, urging patience because the county was struggling to cope with too few vaccine doses for their population.
”I know you are rightly advocating for Ag workers, as are we, but I would ask for a little bit of patience and understanding that our office and the County are also fielding hundreds of calls from food distributors, grocery store workers, teachers, childcare workers, and the elderly all demanding vaccinations,” wrote Greg Rodriguez, a county supervisor’s government relations and public policy advisor.
Although Riverside County has vaccinated more than 22,000 farmworkers, growers in the area say it was a battle to get it done.
Our workers have been battling through the most stressful year in memory and have been impacted personally by COVID at rates that seem to be 2 to 3 times the national average.Albert P. Keck II, president of Hadley Date Gardens, Inc.
Registration for appointments at mobile sites has declined, mainly because most people have gone to pharmacies instead. But growers are now preparing for an influx of workers as the grape harvest begins in mid-June.
“We’re going to reach out to all the employers, find out who hasn’t been vaccinated, and then we’re going to start setting up sites again,” Carian said.
Dr. Eric Schneider, a senior vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare policy group, said the state gave counties so much authority that it slowed the rollout of vaccinations.
“In California, the counties are sort of responsible for public health delivery, and I think actually impeded the early rollout of vaccines,” he said. “There was so much authority delegated to the counties, and the counties had very different ways of approaching it.”
For the record: Greg Rodriguez’s affiliation was corrected to reflect that he works for a county supervisor.
Caitlin Antonios, a California-based freelancer who works with the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, reported this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism‘s 2020 Data Fellowship.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.