Agricultural workers across the country have been hit hard by COVID-19. In a white paper published by the University of California, Berkeley, researchers noted that in October, approximately 20% of farmworkers participating in a SARS-CoV-2 study tested positive for the virus compared to 5% of the general population in the state of California. While Governor Newsom’s vaccine plan situates farmworkers in Phase 1b, it remains unclear how the vaccine will be administered to this population.
As the vaccine is provided to agricultural workers, there are a number of factors that must be considered and addressed to ensure the successful inoculation of this population. It is estimated that between one-half to three-fourths of farmworkers are undocumented. Workers’ legal status raises concerns about the public charge rule, a policy that bars immigrants from obtaining lawful permanent residence in the U.S. if they receive one or more public benefits. Concerns about being designated a public charge may discourage farmworkers from obtaining the vaccine. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that undocumented people have been turned away from COVID-19 testing sites because they were not able to provide identification. If this practice spills over into vaccine distribution, undocumented farmworkers may be excluded.
Agricultural work is primarily seasonal, and workers move within and across states. However, not all states are prioritizing farmworkers in vaccine distribution plans. The patchwork approach to vaccine distribution might present a logistical problem. Ensuring farmworkers receive both doses of the vaccine will require coordination between agencies across states.
Communication about COVID-19 and the vaccine from public health agencies has fallen short for non-English speaking communities. The information has been slow and, at times, has lacked cultural competency. This issue is further complicated by the reality that approximately 6% of farmworkers identify as indigenous from Latin America and may only speak an indigenous language. Although their numbers may be small, the inoculation of farmworkers cannot be achieved without indigenous farmworkers. Therefore, it is imperative that public health agencies develop culturally and linguistically competent information about the vaccine to distribute to all farmworkers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the vital role farmworkers play not only in our economy but also in keeping this country running. Their vulnerability to COVID-19 warrants that they be prioritized in obtaining the vaccine. The public health community, especially those charged with vaccine prioritization and distribution, must come together to address the disparities that farmworkers face so they are successfully inoculated against COVID-19.