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Farm workers prove early challenge for Kern County vaccination efforts

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In this file photo, contract labor irrigator Fabiola Aquino works at cleaning irrigation lines in a pistachio orchard.

On Monday, local farm workers became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but advocates say Kern County lacks the infrastructure to effectively reach the hard-hit population.

With the spring growing season approaching, the advocates worry workers could be left behind as eligibility expands beyond the current limits.

"When you look at all of the indices of vulnerability, you need a very targeted, specific, intentional strategy to reach farm workers on the ground," said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation. "What we are seeing is that there is a lot of interest in getting the vaccine, but the process isn’t working for people right now."

Farm workers have a variety of barriers that make it more difficult for them to sign up for vaccine appointments. Many cannot afford to cut work to get vaccinated, and work long hours with only Sunday off. Language barriers and distrust of state agencies further complicate vaccination efforts.

Yet farm workers have proven receptive to the vaccine. In a February survey of 10,175 agriculture workers, the UFW Foundation found that 74 percent of respondents wanted to receive the vaccine as soon as it was available to them, with a further 22 percent neutral. Only 5 percent gave negative responses.

But in Kern County, many health care providers are not open during farm workers’ off time, and some workers have had difficulty getting information on vaccine appointments. Currently, the county’s mass vaccination site at the fairgrounds is only open from 10 a.m to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Up until Wednesday, the website used to schedule appointments, myturn.ca.gov, did not allow agriculture workers to sign up.

“This is where we were when we started with COVID testing. It’s all started again,” Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force Co-Founder Jay Tamsi said, referring to the county’s early struggles reaching Latinos for COVID-19 tests. “Am I disappointed in the rollout? Yes.”

He said he plans to push Kern County Public Health to extend its vaccination site hours and stay open on Sundays.

“If we have farm workers who are willing to take the vaccine, the season is going to start,” he said. “We need to prioritize that in Kern County.”

The spring growing season means packed employee housing and transportation. And while farm workers will be equipped with personal protective equipment, some worry a lackluster vaccination effort could lead to another virus outbreak just as other communities start to gain herd immunity.

In response to questions from The Californian about the county’s plan to vaccinate farm workers, KCPH Spokeswoman Michelle Corson said the department continued to push for ways to increase vaccine accessibility. She added that the county recently partnered with Adventist Health Tehachapi for a mobile site targeting eastern Kern and she pointed to three new vaccination clinics in Rosamond, Wasco and Arvin that are expected to target farm workers.

“Additionally, the Wonderful Company is an approved vaccination provider and is actively vaccinating agriculture workers,” she wrote in an email. “We are also working with them to develop a vaccination campaign focused on agriculture workers in an attempt to address any potential vaccine hesitancy.”

Still, some believe more must be done to ensure farm workers get equitable access to the vaccine.

“Everybody can tell you somebody who has had COVID, most people can tell you somebody who has died of COVID,” UFW Director of Strategic Campaigns Elizabeth Strater said of farm workers. “They want it and they are engaged to find it, but until we get into the mindset of, ‘get the shots to the workers,’ rather than 'get the workers to where the shots are,' we’re not going to have an effective rollout.”

Christian Romo, a field representative for Supervisor Leticia Perez, said the county needs to create a “farm worker friendly” system for vaccines, one that can overcome language barriers and internet proficiency issues.

The good news is, in Romo’s opinion, it might not be that hard.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “We have the system of trust and community already in place, and we have plans ready to go, but it’s just, do we have the initiative to really be able to do it?”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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