Who gets the COVID-19 vaccine first in Fresno? Pressure mounts to focus on this group

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This article was originally published on the Fresno Bee; Fresnobee.com

Following a brutal summer where California’s agricultural workforce faced harsh working conditions from wildfire smoke, a blistering heatwave, and coronavirus infections, leaders in the central San Joaquin Valley are pushing for farmworkers to be among the first recipients of a COVID-19 vaccination.

As essential workers, farmworkers remain one of the most vulnerable to the virus, top leaders from the Valley said last week.

A lack of proper protective equipment, close working quarters, and crowded households are among the reasons why the region’s farming workforce has gotten sicker at higher rates.

Diana Tellefson Torres, the executive director of the UFW Foundation, said state officials should prioritize farm labor. She said the effort should include a public health campaign focusing on community outreach, education, place vaccination sites within the communities where they live and work, and reducing obstacles such as language barriers.

“There are many challenges that farmworkers already face,” she said. “What we are looking at doing is making sure that we are providing accurate information about testing and about the vaccine.”

The call to action comes on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week of a new committee that includes Latino leaders and grassroots organizations that would provide insight into the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The new committee includes organizations from a 16-member statewide coalition made up of advocates and Latino leaders, including several Valley organizations such as the UFW Foundation, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Faith in the Valley, and the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

COVID-19 VACCINE DISTRIBUTION IN CALIFORNIA

Nearly nine months after the pandemic first hit, early results from multiple late-stage clinical trials show some vaccine developments are more than 90% effective in protecting participants.

Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca announced each vaccine was more than 90% effective during clinical trials.

Though the preliminary results are promising, The Federal Drug and Food Administration has not yet granted emergency authorizations to start distributing the vaccine. Pfizer last week and Moderna on Monday had said they are moving forward with the application process. The FDA requires a 50% efficacy rate before a drugmaker can apply for an emergency authorization of vaccine distribution.

WHO WOULD BE ELIGIBLE FOR A CORONAVIRUS VACCINE?

Despite the process not being finalized, national, state, and local health leaders are already deciding which groups would qualify for the first round of vaccinations.

Fresno Councilmember Luis Chavez, whose Latino-heavy district in southeast Fresno has seen skyrocketing virus rates, in a letter drafted last week urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to prioritize Valley workers, citing the contributions the agriculture industry makes in supplying food to California residents.

Fresno leaders’ plea on behalf of the migrant workforce came just days before The Centers for Disease Control held an advisory committee meeting to decide who would get priority once a vaccine is approved. Chavez sent a similar letter Monday to the CDC ahead of its Tuesday meeting.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Tuesday voted to prioritize health care workers and residents of long term care facilities including nursing homes and assisted living facilities to receive the first dosages of a vaccine in the initial round of distributions, known as phase 1a.

If Pfizer’s vaccine gets authorized, the company said about 30 to 40 million doses could be available before 2020 ends. That would be enough to vaccinate nearly 20 million people, who would need two rounds of shots — the initial vaccination and a booster shot three weeks afterward. The two prioritized groups in phase 1a totals to about 24 million people.

The advisory group will be voting on who gets priority in the following in later meetings following the first phase. Essential workers, which includes teachers, public safety personnel and agricultural workers, will likely be the next group to be prioritized, followed by seniors over 65. Together, both groups amount to about 140 million people, with essential workers making up about 87 million and seniors making up 53 million.

A separate, independent expert panel will be voting on approving Pfizer’s application at a Dec. 10 meeting.

LATINOS AMONG THE VULNERABLE TO COVID-19

High-risk groups most vulnerable to getting the virus and suffering severe complications are likely to get priority, which includes front-line health care workers, seniors over 65, and those with pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Chavez said farmworkers fit that description as many already have health problems and face additional barriers to receiving medical treatment and health care services.

The deadly virus that has ripped its way through Fresno County has infected nearly 40,000 people and taken the lives of 481 people countywide. The latest numbers show at least 57% of the deaths were Latino residents, according to county data.

About 92% of the farmworker labor force in California is Latino, according to a report from the Latino Legislative Caucus, and about 75% are undocumented. More than 15,700 agricultural workers had tested positive for the virus across the state, according to a policy brief published by the coalition.

“As essential workers, they are exposed to COVID-19 at much higher rates,” Torres said. “Farmworkers should be a priority given the vulnerabilities that we are seeing on the ground.”

Within the Latino community, the increase of immigrant deaths has been double that of native-born Latinos, according to a recent study published by UC Merced. Of California’s counties, fourteen experienced a 50% increase in immigrant Latino deaths. Seven of those counties are in the Central Valley. Kings County experienced more than a 450% increase in immigrant Latino deaths, the state’s highest recorded.

Without prioritization, Chavez said he fears the community will suffer even greater losses, and the country could face a food shortage as a result.

GAPS IN CORONAVIRUS TESTING; BARRIERS TO VACCINATIONS

But even if a vaccine could be readily available, local officials also worry gaps in testing and apprehension to taking the vaccine could affect whether the migrant community gets vaccinated.

Nearly nine months into the pandemic, front-line workers in Fresno County and across the Valley continue to avoid testing.

For some, access to testing is too remote, while others don’t find out a testing event is happening until it’s too late. But overwhelmingly, the region’s most impoverished communities fear that taking a test will cause them to lose their job, miss rent, and mounting bills.

“There’s no benefit if you’re a farmworker if you get tested,” Wayne Fox, director of the county’s Division of Environmental Health, told The Bee last week. “If you’re positive, you stay home. You lose your job. You lose your pay. You get quarantined from your family. We’ve got a real barrier to overcome.”

Many are also low-wage workers afraid to seek medical attention and face language barriers that prevent them from receiving accurate information on the vaccine.

Still, the widespread fear and apprehension tied to getting vaccinated is not a surprise to some. At the beginning of the pandemic, misinformation ran rampant among the Latino community due to having higher levels of distrust in government.

Chavez faced that struggle within his own family.

His father, who is 69 years old and has hypertension, initially didn’t take the threat of the virus seriously, Chavez said. He was reluctant to wear a mask, didn’t use hand sanitizer, or follow other health protocols, Chavez said. But when a close family member died of COVID-19 related complications, his father’s attitude changed.

To tackle the virus’s resurgent spread among the immigrant community, Chavez said it needs to start with education.

“That educational process has to happen with our community,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that has not had a family member either get significantly sick or sadly passed away from COVID. I think that, sadly, it’s made us change our mindset about what COVID is and more seriously what COVID does to a family.”

Those outreach efforts have already started as local organizations have begun to distribute informational flyers in English and Spanish and are planning focus groups where workers can ask medical experts questions. In addition, advocates on the ground are working to dispel rumors about the vaccine’s safety and fears around unemployment if a worker tests positive.

Still, Torres said the county has a lot of work to do before the vaccine rolls around.

“We’re hopeful and working towards equity, but we’re also realistic,” she said. “There is a lot of work to be done. Having the vaccine available alone is not going to be enough.”