Prioritizing farm worker vaccines a food security matter, state senator says

With the COVID-19 vaccine still low on supply, many Californians are questioning the priorities as to who gets inoculated when.

But there's a huge, and largely overlooked population, of essential workers that need vaccines that we will all pay for if they're absent.

If California's agricultural workers had their own city, it woud be as big as San Jose.

California's farm workers, a million essential workers, are the working poor, who labor side by side and live in close quarters. It's the perfect petrie dish for the unbounded spread of all strains of COVID.

In fact, an October analysis of infections by UC Berkeley researchers showed a whopping 20% of farm workers infected as opposed to 1% of Bay Area residents at the same time.

Dr. Maximiliano Cuevas of Clinica de Salud del Valle De Salinas participated in the research at the 10 Salinas Valley clinics he works in and manages.

"Once they get infected, there's no way you can isolate or quarantine the individual," said Dr. Cuevas. Nonetheless, almost 60% of the infected and sick workers were going to work because one, there's no sick or quarantine pay.

The second big reason was fear of losing the job," said Cuevas.

State Senator Melissa Hurtado, a daughter of agricultural workers, sees this as a matter of national food and economic security.

"We feed the nation and we feed the world. And, when you have, you know, employees that are getting sick, that are at higher risk, farm workers need to be prioritized because of the nature of the work, said Senator Hurtado.

The state's varied and many business interests are concerned about this massive oversight.

"Making sure we get these vaccines directly to ag workers is extremely important," said Rachel Michelin, CEO of the California Retailers Association. The vaccination rate of these essential workers is pitifully low, so much so, the California Retailers Association is looking at ways for pharmacies to mobilize and deliver vaccines directly to ag workers where they live and work.

"And it's not just the retail pharmacies. There are businesses up and down the state of California that have been asking, that have been begging, 'Put us to work. We will volunteer. We will bring in resources. We want to help get the vaccine out,'" said Ms. Michelin.

Senator and lawyer Anna Caballero has fought for farm workers her entire life and says they are put in an even lower priority tier than other essential workers. Equity demands fairness.  

"Up the number of vaccine doses in rural California, which has ben a real big problem. We're getting much less than we're entitled to by our population," said Senator Caballero.

If you feel agricultural workers should receive high priority, call or e-mail your state legislators and the state Department of Public Health so they can keep supplying healthy food.