Covid-19 Vaccine for Agricultural Workers is a Priority, But it Won’t be Easy

Vaccination against COVID-19 is progressing slowly among healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, who are considered a priority in Phase 1a of the vaccination plan recommended by a panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Phase 1b, agricultural workers and those in the food industry are next to receive the vaccine for being ranked high priority.

Organizations such as the United Fresh Produce Association are working with state and local governments to follow the CDC’s recommendations and recognize the urgency of vaccinating essential workers in the food and agriculture sector.

But unlike Phase 1a, the logistics to carry out the vaccination of essential Phase 1b workers is much more complicated. They should consider traveling to rural areas where farms and ranches are located, how to identify agricultural workers, and what to do with undocumented Hispanic workers who, out of fear of being detained, decide not to go for vaccinations.

Abasto Media interviewed Tom Stenzel, United Fresh’s CEO, and Jennifer McEntire, senior vice president of food safety, about how United Fresh has worked with Congress and the CDC to make farm and food industry workers a priority for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have been meeting with CDC leadership every two weeks to obtain and share information about our industry, the challenges they face, and why we consider it critical for food and agricultural workers to be prioritized for vaccination because they are essential to ensure food production in the country,” said McEntire.

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The high number of COVID-19 infections among Hispanic agricultural and meat-processing workers was also one reason for prioritizing their vaccination. According to a CDC study of COVID-19 infections in this sector during the first months of the pandemic in the US, among 742 food and agriculture workplaces in 30 states, 73% of workers were Hispanic, Latino, and 83% of COVID-19 cases occurred in racial or ethnic minority workers.

Stenzel acknowledged the logistical difficulties they will have to face but said they are working with the association members to make the Phase 1b vaccination process successful.

“We’ve been talking with President-elect Biden’s transition team about the possibility of working with local health departments to do vaccinations at work sites, going to farms rather than having agricultural workers go to cities or towns clinics to get vaccinated,” said Stenzel.

Regarding undocumented Hispanic workers or those who are afraid of getting the vaccine, United Fresh CEO said that “we are trying to create an environment where other workers get the vaccine, and we can produce a video to show them the process and thus become role models.”

The United Fresh Produce Association is in constant contact with its partners at the local level to try to ensure that agricultural workers are given priority to receive the vaccine.

At this time, there is no specific date to begin vaccination of people who are included in Phase 1b. Still, according to estimates provided by CDC, food and agricultural workers would start to be immunized as early as the middle or end of January.

The big challenge that still needs to be addressed is how to plan for identifying farm and food workers so they can receive the vaccine if local health department personnel cannot go to the farms where they work.

“We are working on a solution to this issue,” McEntire said.

Stenzel added that when the pandemic began, the association prepared a form for companies to give to their employees. This form identified the person as an essential worker.

That way, the employee can prove where they work, and that is an essential worker, Stenzel explained. “Any employer can provide that document to their workers,” although he acknowledged that many agricultural workers might be afraid to provide their information to the government.