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Farm Workers Show High Interest In Vaccine, But Say They Don’t Know How To Access It

Madi Bolanos

Armando Celestino walks between rows of grapevines in a Madera County vineyard. He’s handing out small zip lock bags to farm workers filled with hand sanitizer, masks and information on the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Celestino works with Centro Binancional, a community organization that assists those who speak, indigenous languages like Mixtec and Zapotec.


When Celestino hands a bag to Bernadino Cruz, Cruz stops trimming the vines and turns to speak with him. Celestino asks Cruz a series of questions: his name, his age, what languages he speaks, is work going well? Finally, he asks Cruz if he is interested in getting the vaccine. 


“Well I think yes because well thank god I haven’t gotten COVID, so yes,” Cruz says.  


Cruz says it’s his first time being approached about the vaccine so he’s not sure what the process entails. Celestino says many farm workers don’t know what to expect. 


“That’s why we also ask if they’re open to attending a meeting where we can have a specialist talk to them and give them the reassurance they need,” Celestino says.  


He says meetings like that are especially important for those who have encountered misinformation from their social circles, social media and even certain news sites.  


“Negative stuff, like they say the vaccine has a chip,” he says. “Also that the vaccine kills people that’s why they’re afraid to take it.” 


Still, Wayne Fox, the Program Manager for the Fresno County Farm Worker COVID-19 initiative, says many farmers have reported high numbers of farm workers willing to take the vaccine. 


“Individually there are some questions that some workers had and some choose not to do it, but overall at one facility they had a 90% vaccination rate,” Fox says. 


The county used three different models to distribute the vaccine: partnerships with employers, rural health clinics and a two day drive-through service in the small town of Firebaugh. But the county only distributed 3,000 vaccines, representing a small percentage of the nearly 90,000 farm workers here. 


Meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week an initiative to get more farm workers vaccinated as part of his plan to make distribution more equitable.  


Madeline Harris with the Leadership Counsel For Justice And Accountability says the organization has also seen high levels of interest in getting the vaccine among farm workers but very limited access. She says local health departments will often send out a notice online or via automated text announcing available vaccine appointments. 


“It shouldn’t be the system for getting people vaccinated if the communities that are the hardest hit by this virus aren’t going to be the first in line,” Harris says, adding that farm workers live in rural areas with poor internet access and spots fill up in minutes.


When Governor Newsom stopped in Madera to speak with the Leadership Counsel and Centro Binancional on Monday, Harris says they told him it’s crucial for the state and county to partner with community organizations. 


“That can look like vaccine appointment registration that CBO’s have a private link for and are able to go into the community, do door-to-door outreach, draw on relationships they have with the community, hold registration events,” Harris says.  


Furthermore, Harris says vaccine distributors should refrain from requiring proof of employment because many farm workers are undocumented and therefore paid in cash. 


Meanwhile, prior to Newsom’s recent visit, farm workers in Kern County weren’t able to get the vaccine at all unless they fit the age requirement. Still, Dr. Olga Maeve, who sees farm workers in Lamont and other rural parts of the county for Clinica Sierra Vista, says she’s been educating farm workers about the vaccine for months.  


“In the past four five months we’ve seen the farmers are coming to get tested or checked or they're coming for an acute illness and they’re asking questions about it,” Maeve says referring to the vaccine.  


Some farm workers believe they don’t need the vaccine if they already had COVID. In those situations Maeve says she walks them through why that may not be true. 


“We’re letting them know, no even if you had COVID and you recovered, we don’t know how protected you are so you need to maximize protection by getting the vaccine, and they agree to it,” she says. 


Back in Madera, farm worker Andres Ramirez swiftly clips the tiny branches off of grapevines. He pauses to talk about how he, his wife and his three children contracted the virus in late December.  


“It hit all of us and we all came out of it around the same time,” Ramirez says. “Except for my wife, she is still not doing well.” 


He says she still struggles to catch her breath. Still, he says he doesn't want to risk getting sick again so he’s interested in taking the vaccine despite what he’s heard from his community. 


“A lot of people say it’s not good but with so many people getting it and not dying it looks like it’s working.” 


But like others, he says, he’s not sure where to go to get the vaccine. 

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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