An agricultural worker gets vaccinated in Watsonville on Wednesday.
An agricultural worker gets vaccinated in Watsonville on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Vaccine Watch

Strong turnout for Santa Cruz County’s first farmworker vaccination clinic gives officials hope

Dignity Health Dominican Hospital, the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and the California Strawberry Commission teamed up for the first vaccination of local agricultural workers Wednesday at Casserly Grange Hall in Watsonville.

Any concerns Tom Am Rhein had about getting vaccine buy-in from agricultural workers has been tempered by what he’s seen over the past week.

The COVID-19 task force chair for the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau set out recently to recruit takers for 1,000 available doses that might become available via an allotment from Dignity Health Dominican Hospital. By Monday, he said, there were “thousands more takers than we had vaccine for.”

Tom AmRhein
Tom AmRhein of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The resulting Watsonville clinic at the Casserly Grange Hall on Wednesday delivered a first dose to 500 farmworkers from a mix of small and large county growers, from “lettuce, vegetables, berries, the livestock industry, cannabis, wineries — everyone was represented,” he said.

Dignity spokesperson Dominique Hollister, said the goal was to vaccinate 500 people Wednesday and another 500 on Friday. Hollister said the opportunity arose when Common Spirit Health, Dignity’s parent organization, “generously offered 1,000 extra doses and we immediately thought of this community. We wanted to start it here, we partnered with the farm bureau and here we are.”

Altogether, the county has about 9,000 agricultural workers during high season, from late June into the summer months. As part of an agricultural industry that contributes close to $2 billion to the local economy, they not only help power the region’s economic engine, they’re also “three times more likely than other sectors of the California workforce to contract COVID-19" because of the nature of their work, county officials have said.

As a result, state officials have placed agricultural workers in Phase 1b of Tier 1 of the state’s vaccination plan, opening them up for vaccines along with people 65 and older.

Am Rhein said he had heard the concerns of county officials and growers that some of the farmworker community distrusted the vaccine and many more feared the process.

However, “here we created a system that is very clean where it’s ‘name, birthdate, done,’” he said. “But what we were really trying to do is get a core group of ambassadors that have been through the process, got the vaccine and have had no ill effects.

Farmworkers line up for vaccinations Wednesday in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“That way when we get to the spring . . . we have this group that has already gone through the process and is able to speak to their friends and co-workers to help alleviate whatever doubts people might have.”

Salvador Vasquez is one such ambassador. After getting his shot Wednesday, he said he’ll tell others they should do the same when they get the chance.

“Just get it done because we’re all going to have to eventually,” he said, adding that COVID-19 has affected many people he knows. “A lot of relatives, and they say it’s pretty scary.”

The line outside of Casserly Grange Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)