New York state has announced a targeted effort to vaccinate farmworkers and employees of food production facilities against COVID-19. The state says it will work with local health departments and Federally Qualified Health Centers to bring pop-up vaccination sites to work locations.
WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, about the effort.
Dudley: At the beginning of February, the Biden administration set aside 11 million additional vaccines for farmworkers, homeless people, populations with limited English and those living in public housing, specifically, because we understand that these populations have technological challenges as well as linguistic challenges. And so making sure that there are extra vaccines that could go through the appropriate organizations is important. So to give you a little bit of background on that, we have in New York State three federally designated migrant health centers, providers, these are the federally qualified health centers, and these three centers have been supportive and providing health services to farm workers for many years. In fact, providing flu vaccines for over 20 years. What makes their services distinct is that they go to farms to provide these services. So what makes a population vulnerable? A population that has low literacy, a population that may be undocumented, so they don't have the documents that county health departments typically ask for for vaccines, things such as driver's licenses, which only a year ago, farmworkers could apply for driver's licenses in New York State. So the difference is that the migrant help centers have the trust of the population. They have linguistically trained staff who speaks their language, who also have cultural competency. So those are some of the advantages and why In fact, two months ago, the federal government set aside vaccines specifically for this population. What that means, is those FQHCs would have access to additional vaccines coming into the state. And the reason why providing vaccines on farms makes sense, is because that's a safe location. It's a very different thing to have Spanish-speaking health providers that you've seen for many years, come to the farm, than to be transported to a site where there might be National Guard, or they might be requesting documents that this population does not have.
Levulis: And you mentioned migrant workers, specifically when it comes to that population, is New York State timing its efforts appropriately in terms of when migrant workers come and go in this region?
Dudley: So here in New York State we have three pools of farmworkers. We have those farm workers that live here year round, typically working on dairies or working on fruit and vegetable farms year round. We have those workers who come in for the season. Those are who we refer to as migrant workers. Some of them follow the crops up the East Coast and others come under a special visa the H-2A temporary guest worker visa. So in New York State, actually two-thirds of our farmworker population live here year round. It's only a third that actually migrate to the state. And it's for that reason that there is no special time, because in fact clinics like Finger Lakes Community Health, have already vaccinated about 1,000 farmworkers who became eligible for other reasons, either age or preexisting conditions.
Levulis: And to that point, from what you've seen so far in New York and as well as other states, are farm workers and food production workers willing to get the vaccines?
Dudley: There's some hesitancy. The hesitancy is really associated with making sure that where they are getting the vaccine is a safe location. In other words, no National Guard, providing the vaccines on farms at that added advantage that you don't have to facilitate transportation to another site. There's some hesitancy because the farmworkers are unclear on whether or not they will lose a day's wages, specifically if they travel off farm to get a vaccine, or because of a vaccine reaction. So it's critical that these vaccination clinics are accessible to farmworkers. And doing that in their workplace is the way to make it the most accessible.
Levulis: And now, New York's recent announcement about rolling out these pop-up vaccination sites at farms and food production facilities, it included an initial announcement from New York of 500 doses being sent to Sun River Health to administer shots to workers of Angry Orchard and other Orange County farms and facilities in the lower Hudson Valley. In terms geographically, where might the greatest need be in terms of New York when it comes to farmworkers and food production workers?
Dudley: Just to give you a little idea of scope, we have over 56,000 farmworkers. Those 500 vaccinations that came from the set-aside from President Biden that were set aside to HRSA [U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration] specifically for farm workers, that's just a small percentage. So the federally qualified health centers that applied for these vaccines and were accepted for these vaccines, now can access that additional pool. In terms of where farmworkers are, if you look at the dairy industry, we have heavy concentrations of dairy workers in western New York, in Central New York, in the North Country. So dairy workers who are here year round who could get the vaccine, anytime are concentrated where the dairy industry is strong. You may know that we are the third largest dairy producing state in the US. So dairy is important. These year round workers make it possible for the food to get to your table. We also have concentrations, you’re from New York State you know the concentration of where we have vineyards, vineyards in the Finger Lakes, vineyards along the western part of the state, apple orchards in Wayne County, Niagara County, Orleans County, all up along the lake, we have fruit and vegetable farms also scattered around the state. So there's no one area of the state that doesn't need vaccines for farmworkers. Because if we look at agriculture, you can see how it is across the state.
Levulis: And I bring up the point of Angry Orchard not just because Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement regarding the vaccination effort occurred there. But also they're a pretty well established company, folks know them. And they likely have more resources than the average farm does in New York. Is the state, and the federal government, in your mind doing enough for the small farms or the small food production facilities?
Dudley: That's precisely the concern, because if we look at the patterns of agriculture, we have many small farms scattered around the state. So how will the workers on those small farms have access to the vaccine? The idea of having a systematic community health effort where the clinics that farm workers use year round go to, farms is the approach that makes the most sense. Farmworkers aren't able to go to a pharmacy and get a vaccination because they're asking for documents that farmworkers simply don't have. And since many do not have a way to get to off-farm sites, the idea of having the vaccination clinics on the farm make the most sense. So I'm a member of the Board of Directors of Finger Lakes Community Health, and I know in working with the staff there, that they have mapped out how they can go to one farm, a neighboring farm and mapped out regions of the state where they will go to several farms on the same day. But the farmworkers will receive the vaccination on the farm.
Levulis: And I have to imagine with those logistical challenges that you just mentioned, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine was seen as you know, the best option there. And obviously, there's been the pause for some health concerns. How do you think that might impact the effort nationally?
Dudley: That was the best option logistically. I imagine that it will be offered again in the future. But one of the concerns is that that had an impact. The Johnson & Johnson debacle had an impact on the farmworker populations’ willingness to get the vaccine. There is some hesitancy within the community, because of the stories of negative infections that have reactions that have been amplified. There's a lot of concern about the effect of receiving a COVID vaccine, if you currently have or are infected with COVID. There's a lot of issues associated with that passport, the COVID-19 passport, and for many workers who are undocumented, they may use a different name. And there's a concern that that passport will be made out to a name that doesn't match that name. Through the migrant health clinics, there's no questions asked. That information is protected. People are not asked about their immigration status to be able to receive the vaccine.