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Beyond the Furrows: Santa Barbara County's all-hands approach to vaccinating farmworkers

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Farmworkers in Santa Barbara County prepare to get vaccinated at a clinic with assistance from Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

Dr. Van Do-Reynoso says she knows vaccinating everyone possible is important to ending the pandemic. But as Santa Barbara County's public health director, she knows not everyone in the county has equal access to the vaccines, and some are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

This includes the county's Latinx population, which she said faces a "disproportionate burden of disease. So we drilled down to what that meant. We found that farmworkers were also bearing the burden of being cases and hospitalization as well."

The disproportionate health inequities farmworkers face led to the county Public Health Department launching what Do-Reynoso calls "health equity clinics.” They're for farmworkers and their families. Mobile health clinics provided farmworkers 3,577 single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines across 40 different agricultural worksites as of August 3, according to Do-Reynoso.

But Dr. Do-Reynoso said she knows issues will arise, whether they are systemic or logistical.

The systemic obstacles as explored in this series, such as language barriers or socioeconomic status, add a nuanced challenge to this community's vaccination efforts because those barriers contribute to mistrust.

"You can't really erase the deep-seated mistrust towards government that exists for many communities, as some may still — will never feel comfortable going to a clinic or accessing a governmental service like vaccination because of immigration fears," Do-Reynoso said.

Many of the people KCBX News spoke with said farmworkers have these fears because they're worried their immigration status will be used against them.

Even though the state has COVID-19 sick pay benefits, Do-Reynoso said farmworkers are hesitant to get vaccinated because they might miss work due to side effects from the shot.

"And for many families, a couple of days of lost work can be devastating when you live paycheck to paycheck," Do-Reynoso said.

Logistically, Do-Reynoso said she knows many partners need to come together to get vaccines out. That means collaborating with community organizers, partnering with farm companies themselves or mobilizing vaccinations to get more shots in people's arms.

It means getting farm companies, like Freshway Farms, involved. Haydee Garcia, the human resources manager at Freshway Farms in Santa Maria, said keeping up with new information about the coronavirus is the biggest challenge. She said that Freshway’s efforts are about more than just getting shots into arms.

"Doing and wanting to do what's right isn't where it ends," Garcia said. "We also have to do a good job at educating and informing them and keeping them up to date."

Garcia said that there have not been COVID-19 surges among Freshway’s workers because the company has been proactive about getting its employees vaccinated. She said many Freshway workers chose to get their shots when the company first offered clinics.

"Those that didn't — that were just unsure if they wanted to or not — were then requesting the second round that they wanted to be vaccinated," Garcia said. "And we went ahead and moved forward with that."

KCBX News went to Santa Maria to interview farmworkers about the vaccine. Eduardo is one of those farmworkers in the Santa Maria area. He is fully vaccinated with two doses.

Eduardo is 28, from Oaxaca, Mexico, and had only been in the United States for three months when KCBX News spoke with him in July. He did not want to identify where he worked.

Eduardo said his boss was urging farmworkers to get their shots, even bringing in Lideres Campesinas, a farmworker advocacy organization, to urge hesitant workers to receive their vaccines.

"I see that my boss worries about her workers," Eduardo said. "She's not like other bosses — she does care that we get vaccinated so we don't get sick."

Even so, Eduardo said he's still seen some of his coworkers refuse to get vaccinated.

"I have heard that they haven't gotten the vaccine because they're scared of what can happen," Eduardo said. "I've told them that nothing happened, and it's been three months since I got vaccinated. I'm here. Nothing's happened."

Farmworkers who haven't been vaccinated have a variety of reasons for their hesitance. Some are worried, as Eduardo said, about its potential side-effects. But others just don't want it.

At a Santa Maria strip mall, one farmworker, who wished to remain anonymous, was not vaccinated. The 36-year-old says he just doesn't want the vaccine at this moment, and didn't give any other reason than that.

When asked what would make him want the vaccine, he replied that he'd get it if the company he works for suggested it. When asked if the company was already suggesting it, he said they did before backtracking and saying they did not.

"They don't suggest it, but there is help for getting it," the farmworker said. "There is help for getting the vaccine, but it's not necessary to get vaccinated. It's a personal decision."

Andrea Cabrera, an organizer with Lideres Campesinas and a former farmworker, said she knows getting farmworkers vaccinated is important. According to her, many farmworkers fall for misinformation from social media, like Facebook and WhatsApp.

Cabrera is working to challenge vaccine hesitancy. Like Eduardo, she uses her own experience to sway unvaccinated farmworkers into getting a shot, and emphasizes one of the vaccine's overall benefits: preventing death.

"Many people have died because they haven't gotten the vaccine," Cabrera said. "How many people have died that haven't had the vaccine than those who are fully fully vaccinated? Then, that creates a thought of: 'well, yeah, the vaccine isn't doing anything other than benefiting them.'"

Cabrera's approach is about looking to the future with hope. It appeals to the farmworkers’ desire to do better for themselves and their families. It's why she tells them that getting a vaccine is about taking care of themselves, their families and their children. She said when they do that, they will be more likely to lift themselves up.

Cabrera’s efforts — and those of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, the participating farm companies and community organizers — are all aimed at addressing COVID’s disproportionate impact on farmworkers.

Francisco Martinez joined KCBX in January 2021 as a substitute staff announcer, then became a regular midday host, occasional reporter, and host of Citizen Sound — the alternative music show each Sunday night at 11:00 on KCBX. Francisco left KCBX to move back to the Bay Area in January 2022.
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