Groups push to get farmworkers vaccinated, dispel myths about shots

CAMARILLO, Calif. (NewsNation Now) — It’s a race against time for nonprofits, organizations, and officials who are trying to vaccinate thousands of farmworkers who were denied priority access in Florida but now have to travel north to harvest crops in other regions.

The work they do is perhaps among the most essential, yet for the migrant farmworker, finding light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel is complicated.

“We estimate around 41,000 farmworkers in Ventura County,” said Selfa Saucedo, the director of health education for the Ventura County Health Department. “We have given out to farmworkers specifically, we’ve administered about a little over 7,000 vaccines,” Saucedo said.

It’s progress against a tide of misinformation and logistics.

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“The trickiest part about vaccinating our migrant farmworker population has been to find them where they are and ensure that they feel comfortable taking the vaccine when it’s offered,” Saucedo explained.

A flood of misleading information being spread on the internet has challenged those trying to inform and inoculate this community.

“Media, social media going around, giving misinformation about not vaccinating,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda.

Treviño-Sauceda, the executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, says the misinformation stems from a fear of government.

“There is so much distrust from the government from our communities towards the government,” Treviño-Sauceda said.

Migrant farmers are at higher risk for spread than the general population.

“Farmworker communities tend to live in crowded settings, they have more than one family per setting, and so yes, they are at high risk,” said Saucedo.

In Florida, farmworker advocates are asking officials to quickly mobilize to areas such as Homestead, south of Miami, and Immokalee, east of Naples, and to be more lenient when requiring proof of residency now that the state has lowered the vaccine eligibility age. They say many farmworkers are in the country illegally and don’t have a driver’s license or other documents required as an alternative.

Groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have decried that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did not prioritize farmworkers in the state’s vaccine rollout like other governors did. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she has been asking the governor since December to allow farmworkers to get the shot.

The vaccination plan restricted community clinics from starting inoculations because many of these populations were not yet eligible by age. Since January, the state began requiring proof of Florida residency, adding another hurdle for some workers.

Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says farmworkers are uniquely exposed to the virus because they often live in crowded conditions and travel together in vans or buses. Gonzalo says many of them suffer from medical conditions that puts them at a high risk for severe COVID-19.

“It has been an uphill battle for the county and the state to send resources for our community. Even when they deem us as essential farmworkers, they treat us as if we are disposable,” Gonzalo said.

Florida has about 100,000 farmworkers, and Dr. Emily Ptaszek, from the Immokalee clinic, says about one-fifth of those are in Immokalee and soon many will be going north to states like Georgia, Tennessee and New Jersey.

“They start to leave in mid-April. They will be gone completely certainly by June so we have a limited time to get this done,” she said, adding she is planning a clinic next week to vaccinate 500 to 600 people.

For three days this week, the state’s Division of Emergency Management was vaccinating hundreds in Immokalee who meet the state criteria. Social media posts circulated telling people to take a pay stub as a form of ID. Teams were also sent in mobile vans to vaccinate agriculture workers in Homestead.

A Mexican farmworker who lives in Homestead, Florida, said she was fearful when she fell ill with the virus because she has colleagues who have died of COVID-19.

“My job is a pillar of Florida’s economy, and I have a right to justice, dignity and a COVID vaccine,” said the woman, who agreed to give her name only as Cristina.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.