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As California Expands Vaccination, Some Worry Farm Workers Will Lose Out

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Who to vaccinate and when - initially, it was obvious health care workers should be first. In California, they were in line with other essential workers, including teachers and farmworkers. Then Governor Gavin Newsom widened the criteria to include those 65 and older, just as the state is dealing with a vaccine shortage. Now, some labor groups worry that farmworkers are losing their place in line, a problem for California's Latino population, which has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The majority of farmworkers there are Latino.

Dr. Walter Newman knows the obstacles to vaccinating that population. He's given flu shots to farmworkers in California for two decades. And he joins me now to talk about it.

Welcome to the program.

WALTER NEWMAN: It's good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I want to get your take first on the way California has rolled out the vaccine. What concerns do you have so far?

NEWMAN: In a nutshell, it's a feeding frenzy. The demand is so great, and the supply is relatively low. And farmworkers are at the very bottom of the totem pole. They are perceived as small fry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think is not being addressed in their care?

NEWMAN: Their ability to get a vaccine. Much like the elder population where the state and others went in and did vaccines on-site, farmworkers are very similar. They don't have computer access, by and large. They can't take a whole day off work to stand in line for a vaccine. And then there's the educational component. Is it safe?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us what you've seen when you've gone out to give farmworkers flu shots where they work. What are some of the obstacles to sort of accessing that population?

NEWMAN: So I've been involved with farmworker health for 30 years. Even though many of them have insurance, which would cover a flu shot at any pharmacy, 5% or less get immunized. When we take it to the farms and have a fiesta and dancing and refreshments, it's a party, and probably 85% in a given farm will be immunized.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that seems pretty smart.

NEWMAN: It is. And it's fun. And here in the Bay Area in central California, we've administered 50,000 flu shots and never charged a penny.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that sounds like it could be a model for helping more farm and agricultural laborers get COVID vaccines. Is that what you would propose?

NEWMAN: We'd love it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you this? Why aren't the companies that the farmworkers are working for involved in vaccinations, considering that many of them are, you know, very large companies?

NEWMAN: The employers are involved. Right now, they are opening their farms to both union and non-union workers, but no vaccine. We have 200 Stanford medical students ready to go if we could get our hands on vaccine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, so at least principally, this does seem like a supply issue. Do you think that this might get better once there is more vaccine and perhaps people can get a little bit more creative?

NEWMAN: No, I don't. The counties have their hands full just running the mass vaxxes (ph). And the model for the farmworkers, in talking to different county health officers, is for them to wait in line like everybody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One other issue, of course, is that for COVID vaccines, first of all, the ones that are being distributed now - they have to be refrigerated. Specifically, the Pfizer vaccine has to be ultracold.

NEWMAN: Correct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they have to get a second dose.

NEWMAN: Correct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Farmworkers move around. So I mean, both of those things seem to be an impediment in and of themselves.

NEWMAN: Here in California, there is a provision for farmworkers to get immunized in one county and, if they move, an adjacent county. So that shouldn't be a problem. But the right answer is to have multiple on-site clinics. Here in California, farmworker kids have five times the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 than Caucasian kids. The death rate is double. This is the place to make an impact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Walter Newman is a physician in San Jose, Calif.

Thank you very much.

NEWMAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.