Amid misinformation and ‘mistrust,’ Santa Cruz County leaders chart course to get vaccine to farmworkers

A farmworker in Watsonville.
A farmworker at Lakeside Organic in Watsonville on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

During peak season, Santa Cruz County is expected to be home to some 9,000 farmworkers who could soon be in line for the coronavirus vaccine. But county officials, growers and advocates worry about the hurdles standing between workers and the shots.

For Dick Peixoto, like many others across Santa Cruz County, the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine was welcome news during a pandemic that has forced industries across the globe to adjust to new working conditions.

“I think it’s huge,” said Peixoto, who runs Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family owned and operated company in Watsonville that farms organic produce. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

During peak times, Peixoto employs some 300 farmworkers. Altogether, the county has about 9,000 agricultural workers during high season, from late June into the summer months, and those workers will be among the first in line once the county enters its next vaccination phase, which it hopes to do by the end of the week.

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But county officials, growers and advocates worry about the hurdles standing between farmworkers and the shots they need.

Not only has the vaccine rollout been bogged down by supply shortages and logistical challenges, but some undocumented agricultural workers might be hesitant to receive the shots, worried about sharing too much information with government officials. Others may be reluctant because of misinformation about the vaccine and its safety.

Peixoto estimates that about a quarter or third of his farmworkers are “very reluctant” to take the vaccine. “The mistrust is gonna be an issue,” he said.

County leaders focus on farmworkers

Santa Cruz County leaders have pointed to similar concerns.

In a Jan. 14 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, thanking him for his support for COVID-19 vaccination prioritization for farmworkers, Board of Supervisors Chairperson Bruce McPherson wrote that “it is crucial that targeted outreach efforts are put in place to provide vaccine education to the agricultural worker community” in the coming weeks.

“These efforts must include our indigenous speaking communities who do not have access to technology or healthcare,” McPherson wrote. “Many of our agricultural workers are considered hard-to-reach and there are reports circulating that many undocumented immigrants are wary of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, fearing that government entities will be tracking and sharing their information.”

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As part of an agricultural industry that contributes close to $2 billion to the local economy, farmworkers in Santa Cruz County not only help power the region’s economic engine, they’re also at a higher risk for contracting the virus.

“Agricultural workers are three times more likely than other sectors of the California workforce to contract COVID-19, which, combined with their systematic exclusion from important safety-net programs, heightens their vulnerabilities,” McPherson wrote.

County officials have said they plan to use mobile response teams and a high-capacity vaccination site at the fairgrounds in South County to give shots to farmworkers once their numbers are called.

It’s not clear just yet when that will be, but county health officials during a briefing late last week said Phase 1a could be wrapping up by the end of this week. For now, farmworkers are part of the first tier of the next phase, called Phase 1b.

Farmworkers at Lakeside Organic on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

But as has been the case so far, much of the pace will be dictated by the vaccine supply chain.

“The main challenge that we all have in our head right now is an adequate vaccine supply,” said Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who along with Fourth District Supervisor Greg Caput spearheaded the effort to write the letter to Newsom. “Secondary challenge or priority... is working with the community-based organizations to make sure this is effective.”

With the mobile response teams that could visit farm workers directly at work, at least one barrier to access could be reduced, Coonerty said. Plans for deploying those teams are still being formulated.

“I’m happy that the health department is sort of thinking proactively about how to get the vaccine to people where they are,” he said.

To Coonerty, vaccinating the farmworker population as soon as possible is important for a number of reasons. Not only are they “sort of the definition of essential workers,” he said, but the county also wants to make sure there is equity during the vaccine rollout.

And high-density housing for farmworkers creates a danger of spreading the virus. So does the travel many agricultural workers regularly take on.

“Southern California is obviously a hotspot globally,” Coonerty said. “We’ll have farmworkers coming from there to here, so you want to make sure that we vaccinate some so we can reduce that spread.”

Lakeside Organic in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Misinformation, supply shortage challenges

Juan Hidalgo, the Santa Cruz County’s agricultural commissioner, said officials have begun planning how to get the word out to farmworkers and what form the vaccination effort will take.

“We’re working on the early stages of what that process will look like,” he said during an interview last week. “We’re definitely having those conversations.”

With a lot of fields idle right now, only a small fraction of the county’s total population of farmworkers is currently in Santa Cruz County. But that number is expected to swell into the thousands by late June and early July.

Hidalgo said it will be important to get some messaging out to those workers ahead of time, even before they become eligible, communicating the safety of the vaccine. He has heard stories of vaccine hesitancy among farmworkers, with some, for instance, worrying about getting the vaccine and then becoming sick.

The vaccine does not include the live virus and experts have overwhelmingly deemed it safe and effective.

Factual, easy to digest, information will be needed to combat vaccine reluctancy. Hidalgo said he hopes officials can get information out to the farmworker community in the “next couple weeks.”

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“It needs to be put out in a way that is easy for people to understand,” he said.

The vaccination effort itself needs to be as easy as possible, too, Hidalgo said. The information collected from individuals who receive the vaccine should be “as limited as possible” to help alleviate fears about sharing it with a government agency. “I think that’s gonna be important,” Hidalgo said.

County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said last week that farmworkers getting vaccinated will only verbally have to give a name, address and date of birth. She said the county has been working with Hidalgo and the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, and has been planning a mass vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds in Watsonville.

The drive-thru vaccination clinic opened Monday, and health officials hope it will eventually service up to 1,000 people per day.

“When it is time for food workers to be vaccinated we anticipate that they will be open, that there will be no documentation required,” Newel said.

A drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic opens for eligible people at the Watsonville Fairgrounds this week

One factor further complicating vaccinations for farmworkers is that they often move from one county to another for work. The county will have to know who has gotten a first dose elsewhere and who hasn’t.

“It will be enough for them to just show us their vaccination card, which everybody gets when they get a vaccine, and it will tell us what kind of vaccine they had and what date and we will honor that and give them dose No. 2,” Newel explained.

County officials, Hidalgo said, have been also engaging with growers who will play a big role as the employers.

“Because they understand the logistics on the ground,” he said.

To Peixoto, the owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens, vaccine reluctance is “the biggest issue.” He said he has heard of misinformation on Spanish-language radio stations, has seen it on social media and even heard of friends who say they won’t take it.

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“There’s a lot of misinformation running around,” Peixoto said.

He hopes that the workers who are willing to take it will be able to set an example for others to show that the vaccine is safe. “I think it’s a comfort level,” Peixoto said.

The word of their fellow workers telling them it’s safe, he said, goes “a lot further” than any type of literature.

Still, Peixoto’s team has begun preparations for the rollout. He said they’re working to put together employee cards or maybe even photo IDs for workers to bring to the vaccination sites to make sure those who should receive the shot get it.

Lakeside Organic in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’re raring to go,” Peixoto said. “We’d like to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”

For Hidalgo, the agriculture commissioner, one of his biggest concerns is supply.

He is hoping that by April the vaccine stock is sufficient to quickly and effectively get shots into arms of workers. In a “best-case scenario,” Hidalgo said, he would like to see the majority of agricultural workers vaccinated by early May when the peak season nears.

“That would be fantastic,” he said. “Hopefully we can get there.”

An “essential role” will be played by community groups who can help get the word out, Hidalgo said.

“They’re trusted” by agricultural workers, he said.

‘Trusted messengers’ needed, advocates say

MariaElena de la Garza, executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County and a member of the South County COVID Triage Group, works for one of those community organizations. She is happy that agricultural workers are being prioritized during the vaccine rollout.

“Because what we’ve learned in this pandemic is … the systems that exist don’t do well in supporting our vulnerable families,” she said.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected blue-collar South County and its predominantly-Latino population, and government and community leaders have sounded alarms about how vaccine distribution there is lagging behind the rest of the county.

A farmworker at Lakeside Organic in Watsonville on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

And while it was important for farmworkers to be high up during a vaccine rollout, de la Garza said the question will now be how the system is going to change, adapt and be flexible to make sure they truly have access to the vaccine.

The county’s strategies for the rollout to farmworkers are “really good,” she said, but to her the gap right now is in education and outreach.

“We know that the message coming from trusted entities, trusted partners, people who they are already connected to, where there’s trust built, we know that helps in delivering the message,” de la Garza said. “And so how do we, you know, reinforce and support those trusted messengers? I haven’t heard a plan for that part.”

Those “trusted messengers,” the community organizations, are already in place and need to be supported and brought into the county’s planning, she argued. The message needs to be conveyed through an array of channels, from radio to social media to community leaders in churches, de la Garza said.

Worries about some farmworkers being hesitant to take the vaccine are “valid” concerns, she said, but also not unique to that population. “How do we craft a message that is culturally respectful and appropriate and who gives the message?” de la Garza said. “Because that matters, too.”

De la Garza is all too familiar with the angst among some undocumented workers about providing information to officials though she said she thinks the change atop the federal government will help. “The fear is real,” she said. “The fear about getting your name on a list is real.”

To de la Garza, the way to alleviate those fears on a local level will be “limited red tape.”

She said the message about vaccination has to be crafted by the community and by Spanish- and indigenous-language speakers. There is urgency, too, to create momentum and trust.

“We need to start the messaging now,” de la Garza said. “And I think we’re doing it. You know, different little groups are doing it.”

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