A landmark initiative in California is taking vaccines to the fields, targeting an immigrant work force that is at high risk for Covid-19. Many of the workers are undocumented, raising questions about whether they should have priority.
Farmworkers in Hemet, Riverside County, Calif.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times
By Miriam Jordan
COACHELLA, Calif. — 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. “You’re talking about an apocalyptic situation,” he said.
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 Health Department.
The 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.
Hundreds of coronavirus outbreaks have crippled the work force on farms and in food processing centers across the country. Researchers from Purdue University estimate that about 500,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 9,000 have died from it.
In the Coachella Valley, the vaccination program, which began in January, is the culmination of a monthslong effort to educate farmworkers about Covid-19, bringing testing close to their workplaces and encouraging them to stay home if they contract the virus.
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.
Rosa Torres, who packs dates, said she never imagined it could be so simple. “God answered my prayers,” said Ms. Torres, 49, an immigrant from Mexico, who was resplendent in matching lime-green shirt, wool cap and mask to mark the occasion.
A single mother, she said she could not afford to get sick and miss work.
“As soon as we got word vaccines were going to be available, we were making plans,” said Janell Percy, executive director of Growing Coachella Valley, a farmer group that is working with the Health Department. Ms. Percy spends frenetic days juggling calls between the county about vaccine availability and growers who inform her of the number of vaccines needed to cover their crews.
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