The deadliest jobs in this past pandemic-driven year were not to be found in health care or first responders. They were to be found among restaurant and agriculture workers.

That’s according to a report released earlier this month by UC San Francisco, where epidemiologists found that while Californians between the ages of 18 and 65 had a 22-percent increase in death rates during the pandemic, that number rose to 39 percent for food and agriculture laborers. Meanwhile, a UC Berkeley study released in December found that 13 percent of 1,000 farmworkers surveyed tested positive for Covid-19, compared to a 3-percent positive rate for the general population.

That the Salinas Valley farmworker community was especially hard hit during the pandemic comes as no surprise for those of us who both live and report here. With federal leadership that was ill-equipped bordering on disinterested in helping during the early days of the pandemic, and then ill-equipped and disinterested in facilitating a massive vaccination effort once vaccines were approved, Monterey County went into lockdown and mostly stayed there for much of last year.

It’s a new year and a new administration. And with that new administration not only formulating but starting to execute a mass vaccination plan, it’s time for the state and county to start figuring out how best to get shots in arms – especially as between 54,000 and 90,000 farmworkers are expected to start arriving in Monterey County in March as the season ramps up.

Max Cuevas, CEO of Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, and Chris Valadez, executive director of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, have been deep in formulating a plan to vaccinate farmworkers once they arrive. During a presentation at the Jan. 26 Monterey County Board of Supervisors meeting, Cuevas said he’s confident Clinica, in partnership with local growers and by setting up vaccination clinics at worksites, can vaccinate 1,500 people per week at sites specifically for farmworker vaccinations.

If, that is, the county can get them the vaccines to administer.

“The clinic system has not received or administered any vaccinations to any of our patients,” Cuevas said, noting that Clinica has 68,000 registered patients. “All vaccines currently flow through the Health Department only, even though the clinic system is registered to receive vaccines.”

Clinica has partnered with the county to vaccinate firefighters, Cuevas said, and that project has been working well. If the system is organized correctly – with personnel, registration systems, security and traffic control in place – he thinks a mass vaccination effort aimed at farmworkers can work well too.

“Registration takes about 10 minutes… administering the vaccine takes about 30 seconds,” he said. The goal is herd immunity – getting 80 percent of a population vaccinated. It means vaccinating between 43,000 and 72,000 migrant farmworkers.

“We’re prepared to launch this thing fairly quickly. I know the grower community is hoping that it would be sooner rather than later,” Cuevas said. “They’ve made their facilities available and we can set it up.”

It’s about to become a matter of outreach and equitable distribution of the vaccine.

As Cuevas pointed out, the UC Berkeley study found that 50 percent of farmworkers surveyed weren’t planning on seeking out the vaccine. He wants to study whether that number goes up if employers both educate workers and offer easily accessible vaccines.

“Let’s provide education – lots of education – so they get vaccinated and they bring their families in to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s going to be huge to be able to protect the food source. It is a national security issue and this workforce needs to be healthy and productive.”

County Supervisor Luis Alejo pointed out that if the state fails to recognize the influx of farmworkers, there won’t be enough vaccines to go around.

“We need help from our legislators to ask those questions of the California Department of Public Health, are counties getting their fair share?” he said. “It needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed now. We have to make sure Monterey County gets its fair share of vaccines for our residents.”

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