An effort to vaccinate 1,000 farmworkers this week at Monterey Mushrooms’ north Morgan Hill facility began Sunday morning—the first day that frontline workers in the agricultural industry are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine in Santa Clara County.
Public health experts and labor advocates say that ongoing, mobile clinics such as the two-day event at Monterey Mushrooms—where eligible residents have easy access to the vaccine within their communities—will prove crucial in containing the pandemic as quickly as possible.
“Our goal in the county is to make sure everybody has access to vaccinations when they become eligible, and especially those who are working in sectors (and communities) that have been hardest hit by Covid,” County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said at a Feb. 28 press conference at Monterey Mushrooms. “These mobile vaccination clinics that come to communities, that meet people where they work and live—this is how we will get ourselves out of this pandemic.”
The vaccination clinic at the Watsonville-based mushroom grower’s Hale Avenue facility resulted from a collaboration among the county, Monterey Mushrooms, United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation. Organizers were planning to vaccinate 500 farmworkers on Feb. 28, and 500 more on March 3. The vaccination clinic is open to all farmworkers in Santa Clara County.
Among those vaccinated Sunday morning was Sarbjit Sangha, an HVAC mechanic and 18-year employee of Monterey Mushrooms. The San Jose resident said he has been looking forward to receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.
“It’s really good for me, my family, my co-workers—good for everybody,” said Sangha, who added he wasn’t feeling any side effects from the inoculation about 45 minutes after he received it.
Monterey Mushrooms owner Shah Kazemi said his willingness to host this week’s vaccination clinic in Morgan Hill is simply a continuation of the company’s efforts to keep its employees healthy. He said Monterey Mushrooms has partnered with the county for 20 years to provide flu vaccines for the grower’s employees and their families.
Bringing the Covid-19 vaccine to the farmworkers—rather than forcing them to seek out a central vaccination location—is a natural way to overcome the challenges in reaching frontline workers who might not speak English or are not tech-savvy enough to make an online appointment, Kazemi said.
“We said, what can we do to bring the vaccine on site where people feel comfortable and it’s easy for them to come get vaccinated,” Kazemi said. “We had a history with the county regarding the flu vaccine. We continue to dialogue with them, and we are fortunate they made the vaccines available to us to do what we’re doing today.”
Monterey Mushrooms employs 400 people at the Hale Avenue growing facility. The company employs 800 at its Watsonville site, and Kazemi said he would be willing to host a vaccination clinic there for Monterey County farmworkers.
Unionized employees at Monterey Mushrooms are represented by the UFW. Officials from the national union as well as the UFW Foundation were at the Feb. 28 press conference.
UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson-Torres said she has been part of an ongoing effort to convince the state to ensure that farmworkers in California are prioritized in the line for the Covid-19 vaccine. She cited a UCSF study that found that Latino farmworkers in California have seen a 59-percent increase in death since the pandemic started.
While not all counties have triggered the farmworker sector as a priority for vaccinations, Tellefson-Torres gave Santa Clara County high marks for its efforts.
“We want to make sure farmworkers are getting access to vaccines on the ground, and counties and the state are behaving in such a way that they’re seeing this as an urgency,” Tellefson-Torres said. “It’s a crisis within a crisis. Those who nourish this state and country are dying from Covid-19. It’s not moving fast enough in most counties.”
The 1,000-person vaccination clinic at Monterey Mushrooms is one of the largest events focused on farmworkers that she has seen in the state thus far. “It’s an exemplary collaboration that should be replicated elsewhere,” Tellefson-Torres said.
Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine also praised the county for its efforts to bring public health resources not only to farmworkers and senior citizens, but also to those without internet access, non-English speaking residents and the homeless. A two-day vaccination clinic in Morgan Hill last week—which administered 300 Covid-19 vaccine doses, mostly to older residents—is just one example. Constantine added that county public health experts are routinely in contact with officials, residents and organizations from Morgan Hill and other cities in Santa Clara County.
“They’re trying to make sure the vaccine is distributed in the most equitable manner. If everyone is not vaccinated, Covid-19 is not going to stop,” Constantine said.
County public health experts on Feb. 28 urged all residents to take the Covid-19 vaccine when they are eligible. With the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a new vaccine from Johnson & Johnson last week, three different vaccines are now available to those who are eligible.
The county’s Covid-19 Testing Officer, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, said Feb. 28 that the county has vaccinated 20 percent of its total population. Almost 60 percent of the county’s senior citizens have been vaccinated.
“That will go a long way at decreasing the number of deaths (and hospitalizations) in our community, and that will be safer for all of us,” Fenstersheib said. “We just need more vaccine, and we are hopeful that we will see more vaccine come to us through the state and federal government.”
As of Feb. 28, eligibility for the Covid-19 vaccine expanded in Santa Clara County to people who work in the agricultural, food service, education and emergency services sectors, Cody noted. She said the county’s first vaccine clinic for farmworkers on Sunday brings more “hope” in the fight against Covid-19, but residents should continue to wear masks in public, do business outdoors or stay home if possible, and maintain social distance.
“The vaccines are safe, extraordinarily effective, and we now have three of them. They give us hope,” Cody said.