woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a clinic in Tulare. Vaccination efforts aimed at agricultural employees are gaining momentum around California, with local agencies and health-care organizations working with agricultural employers to organize clinics. (Photo: Charles Williams)

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

COVID-19 vaccination efforts have picked up steam in several agricultural counties, as local agencies, farm employers and agricultural groups coordinate clinics.

“Beginning March 1, we really had a significant increase in the amount of vaccination that was going towards the food and agriculture workers,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “With that, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of our employees receiving the vaccination.”

In Tulare County, the vaccine allotment has improved from around 3,500 doses per week in January to 10,000 to 15,000, said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. One frozen-food operator in Dinuba and Tulare recently vaccinated more than 1,200 people, and a dairy and a citrus packinghouse have vaccination events planned, she noted.

A similar effort took place last week at Westside Produce in Firebaugh, where close to 600 people received the first of two doses of the vaccine.

Garrett Patricio, Westside Produce president, noted that essential employees at the company have been working through the pandemic.

“As an employer, we’re responsible for our workforce, and we’re responsible for providing a healthy and safe work environment for them to work in,” Patricio said. “So just knowing that my workers will be vaccinated, that they will feel a sense of comfort, a sense of safety, and know that their employer is doing the right thing by trying to take care of them … that makes me feel very good.”

Patricio said he has offered the Westside facility as a vaccination site for Fresno County and Valley Health Team “for as long as they need it.”

Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, a dairy farmer and former Fresno County Farm Bureau president, said it has taken creativity to ensure vaccines reached farm employees, to overcome lack of reliable internet access and transportation. The system involves going to individual farms, and having the farmer fill out paperwork ahead of time.

“They get a list of all their employees,” Pacheco said. “They fill out a form, and they do an education piece,” which involves the Fresno County Department of Public Health talking to agricultural employees about the vaccines and what to expect, including any potential side effects.

At Westside Produce, Patricio said education efforts focused on “showing them that, hey, the vaccine is safe, and that vaccine is available,” and that employees might not have another chance to receive it for some time, “depending on where you fall in the age-and-health-condition chain.”

County supervisor Pacheco said the vaccine has had “wide acceptance from our farmers and from our essential farmworkers.” He cited vaccine acceptance rates of 85% to 90% among employees at individual farms, and noted that many people in the essential workforce “saw the negative effects of the virus firsthand.”

Pacheco also said accommodating farming operations of all sizes was important. He said the county had reached out to clinics in rural areas, where farmers and their employees can set vaccination appointments.

In Tulare County, Blattler said rural clinics are in place for registration through the statewide database at www.myturn.ca.gov; these are in Dinuba, Earlimart and Porterville, as well as at the Woodlake Community Center.

“These are small, rural, ag and farmworker areas of our community, often underserved areas,” she said.

Efforts to inoculate agricultural employees continue in Riverside County.

Jim Hessler, director of West Coast operations at Altman Nursery in Perris, said he has been working with the county public health office, and hosted a two-day clinic in mid-February where about 350 people each day received initial vaccine doses.

Hessler said his nursery reached out to other nurseries and agricultural operations in the area to get the word out.

“We had not only our employees but other agricultural employees from around the area,” he said, adding that a local nonprofit organization that works with migrant employees had also helped with outreach, including answering questions and serving as interpreters at the clinic.

Vaccinated employees at the nursery work in planting, spacing, pinching, weeding and harvesting operations in the greenhouse and outdoors, he said.

Hessler said he was surprised by the amount of vaccine misinformation circulating on social media and other channels, and worked to counteract it as part of his outreach.

“When we first started talking with our employees about it, we probably were at about 40% of the people that said that they wanted to get the vaccine,” he said. “We had about 10 days of pretty intense information—meetings and fliers to explain what the vaccine is, the testing that it’s been through, why it’s safe, why it’s important. We ended up with about 90% of the employees wanting to get the vaccine when it was all said and done.”

This week, he said, those who received their first dose last month will return for the second.

“We’ll have 700 more people fully vaccinated, which is pretty cool,” Hessler said.

“I would say the biggest thing is that, by doing this, I know that we’ve saved some people from getting sick, and we’ve probably saved people from getting really, really sick and saved some real heartache for some families,” he said. “The advice for anybody else that is going to have the ability to do a similar event is, don’t neglect the education on the importance and the safety of the vaccine.”

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