Posted on March 8, 2021

Thousands of Farmworkers Are Prioritized for the Coronavirus Vaccine

Miriam Jordan, New York Times, March 1, 2021

The sun-baked desert valley tucked behind the San Jacinto Mountains is best known for an annual music festival that draws 100,000 fans a day and a series of lush, oasis resort towns where well-heeled snowbirds go to golf, sunbathe and party. But just beyond the turquoise swimming pools of Palm Springs, more than 10,000 farmworkers harvest some of the country’s largest crops of date palms, vegetables and fruits.

Mainly undocumented immigrants, they have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in California: In some areas, up to 40 percent of the workers tested for the virus had positive results. The Rev. Francisco Gómez at Our Lady of Soledad church in Coachella said his parish had been averaging 10 burials a week. {snip}

Ending the virus’s rampage through farm country has been one of the nation’s biggest challenges. Undocumented immigrants are notoriously wary of registering for government programs or flocking to public vaccination sites, and the idea of offering the Covid-19 vaccine to immigrants who are in the country illegally ahead of other Americans has spurred debate among some Republican members of Congress.

But a landmark effort is underway across the Coachella Valley to bring the vaccine directly into the fields. Thousands of farm workers are being pulled into pop-up vaccination clinics hosted by growers and run by the county Health Department.

Riverside County is the first in the nation to prioritize farm workers for vaccination, regardless of their age and health conditions, on a large scale. But epidemiologists say such programs will need to expand significantly to have any chance of ending one of the biggest threats to the stability of the country’s food supply.


On breaks from bunching scallions, harvesting artichokes and pruning grapevines, the workers on a recent morning trickled into an open-air warehouse to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

They were spared the frustrating online registration process that most Californians must navigate and the hourslong waits that were typical at mass vaccination sites. Once they agreed to be immunized, an employer or organizer scheduled their appointments. Then, all they had to do was show up.


In California, several counties hope in March to expand eligibility to the entire agricultural work force. Colorado, Idaho, Michigan and Wisconsin are among states that have said they intend to start vaccinating farmworkers in the coming weeks.

But other states have taken steps that could discourage workers from coming forward.

In Florida, a citrus powerhouse, people must prove residency to get a vaccine, a requirement that tends to deter unauthorized immigrants. Some pharmacies in Georgia, where people older than 65 are currently eligible for vaccines, have turned away immigrants unable to show a Social Security number. In Nebraska, where immigrants are the backbone of the large meatpacking industry, people without legal status will be vaccinated last, officials said.


Health officials everywhere are grappling with how to achieve equitable vaccine distribution. President Biden has repeatedly said that delivering the vaccine is core to his coronavirus response, but early data shows that doses have been slower to reach some Black and Latino communities with an elevated risk of infection.

In Riverside County, Hispanics represent nearly half of the population but have so far received only 20 percent of doses. Vaccinating farmworkers is a first step toward addressing the equity problem, said U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz, a physician who grew up in Riverside County.


Like many Americans, some farmworkers worry the vaccine is not safe, because disinformation has proliferated on social media. Others fear that being vaccinated could expose them to immigration enforcement.

Prime Time International, the nation’s largest grower of bell peppers, invited workers to register for the vaccine last month, and “the first question was, ‘Is immigration going to be there?’” recalled Garrett Cardilino, director of field operations for the company.

To assuage those fears, Riverside County enlisted grass roots organizations to reach out to farmworkers and reassure them.

“There is no chip to track you; there is no negative effect; you don’t lose your fertility,” Montserrat Gomez, an educator with TODEC, a legal-aid nonprofit organization that serves immigrants, told a group of about 30 workers in masks gathered by a spinach field in the town of Winchester.


Rose Perez, a 36-year-old worker at Full Farms, a vegetable farm in the city of Hemet, said she remained suspicious of the vaccine, even though her sister had become gravely ill with the coronavirus. “I read that nurses died after taking the vaccine,” she said. “No one in my family is taking it.”


Two rows over, America Aguilera, 46, said she could not remember undocumented immigrants getting preferential treatment for anything in her 21 years in the United States. “With all due respect,” she said, “it’s about time we got the opportunity to be first at something.”