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More Oregon Farmworkers Get Vaccinated As More Kids Get Sick

Concern for children amid the COVID-19 delta variant is contributing to a rising number of farmworker families getting vaccinated.
Virginia Garcia medical services is trying to increase the vaccination rates of farmworkers. | VIRGINIA GARCIA
September 9, 2021

When Arismel Cardenas walked into a Gervais vaccination clinic in July, her nerves made her stomach turn. She’d heard of some people's COVID-19 vaccine symptoms and worried how she would react.

But Cardenas also thought of how her husband, a nursery worker, had been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the spring and how the two eldest of her five children, ages 12 and 9, became sick, and are eager to begin classes in person in the Woodburn School District as the delta variant rages.In the end, a slight fever and sore arm were worth it to keep her children safer as they return to in-person learning, she said.

“I’m not saying it’ll protect us 100%, but it’ll help us be less likely to end up in the hospital,” Cardenas, 35, said in Spanish. “They made it for a reason.”Cardenas is part of a rising number of farmworker families getting vaccinated in recent weeks, in part out of concern for children amid the delta variant, according to several community-based organizations that serve agricultural workers.

The work of these organizations and the Oregon Health Authority has stayed largely consistent in the past month, distributing PPE, encouraging vaccines — often through personal stories and connecting farmworkers to other resources.

“We have to make sure we’re protecting the parents in the worksite, but also the children, and that we’re protecting families as a whole,” Daysi Bedolla Sotelo, organizing director at PCUN, Oregon’s farmworker union, said. “It’s about having a generational approach so we don’t forget anybody or leave anybody behind.”

Earning farmworkers' trust

Though the government declared farmworkers “essential” at the beginning of the pandemic, the Oregon Health Authority did not open vaccinations to them until the end of March, a decision that some advocates said contributed to disparities in vaccination rates between people of color and white people.

As of Friday, 51.8% of Hispanic/Latinx people in Oregon have been vaccinated, compared to 67.1% of white people.

The state’s vaccine database does not track professions, so it’s difficult to know how many farmworkers have been vaccinated.Advocacy organizations face significant challenges when trying to convince many agricultural workers to trust a vaccine effort pushed by the U.S. government.

The U.S. government has a history of medical malpractice toward Latinos and other communities of color. For example, California targeted Mexican-Americans for forced sterilization in the first half of the 20th century.

And, according to some advocates, the heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration contributed to the mistrust.Maria Elena Guerra, executive director of Farmworker Housing Development Corporation, a Woodburn-based nonprofit that runs affordable housing complexes for farmworkers in the Mid-Valley, said her organization confronts mistrust of governmental and medical institutions among farmworkers.

“The previous administration terrorized people to the point of, 'Politicians just want to kill us,’” Guerra said.

If they are undocumented, farmworkers may also be hesitant to fill out vaccine forms with personal information, she said. An estimated 37% of farmworkers nationwide are undocumented, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey.

“Their biggest concern is, ‘Are they going to track me down?’” Guerra said.

The best strategy to help people overcome these barriers has been advocacy workers, health promoters and neighbors sharing their own vaccine stories, Guerra said, which in some cases can require two to three hour-long conversations.

Vera said they have also found that a personal connection is key.

“We have to adjust our times and availability to come to them,” he said.

A few weeks ago, Juarez conducted a rapid assessment of 500 farm and food processing workers in Morrow and Umatilla counties, and learned about 40% of people surveyed were not vaccinated.

Those who were hesitant said a persuasive factor was seeing more trusted community members share their vaccine experiences, which is especially important in rural areas often lacking bilingual and bicultural health care providers, Juarez said.

“They’re far away from Salem and Portland, and they want to see their own providers say the vaccine is OK,” Juarez said. “We realized we need to do more of this and go door-to-door and talk to people.”

'Think of your children'

Throughout the pandemic, Latinos have represented a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases, which experts have attributed in part to systemic factors such as Latinos being overrepresented in essential jobs such as agriculture that continued in-person work and having less access to health care and social services.

While Latinos are 13.4% of Oregon residents, they have made up 19.4% of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to state health data.

The Oregon Health Authority's weekly outbreak reports have shown dozens of outbreaks at agricultural sites, including farms and food processing sites.

As pediatric COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise and with children younger than 12 still ineligible for the vaccine, Bedolla Sotelo said, more farmworkers have scheduled vaccine appointments in recent weeks.

“Our community has been looking more for vaccines,” she said. “Kids are going back to school, and a lot of folks who we serve are parents. Folks are making sure they and their kids have their vaccines.”Bedolla Sotelo’s observations mirror wider nationwide trends of vaccination rates increasing in the past month.

Martha Lopez, a healthy workplaces organizer at PCUN, said several people who had not yet been vaccinated have changed their minds as they saw the spike in pediatric cases.

“I tell people, ‘You have children who are 4, 5, 6 years old, and this can affect them. If you don’t want to take care of yourself, think of your children. If you get infected, you might infect them. Do you want to see them die?’” Lopez said in Spanish. “Then their perception changes a bit.”

Barriers for Indigenous workers

Lopez and others said it's a challenge having these conversations with Indigenous farmworkers whose primary language may not be Spanish.

She described visiting apartments recently and struggling to share vaccine information with people whose first language is Mam, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala.

“I was speaking to somebody and they said, ‘How do you want us to get vaccinated if we get to the clinic and start filling out papers and we don’t understand? I can’t read Spanish, so how can I sign something if I don’t know what it says?’” Lopez said.

PCUN has one organizer who speaks Mixteco and is in the process of hiring a Mam-speaking organizer, Bedolla Sotelo and Lopez said.

Bedolla Sotelo said PCUN has asked state health officials for more COVID-19 resources in Indigenous languages.Vera acknowledged there are gaps in sharing vaccine information with speakers of Indigenous languages, but pointed to videos the agency has made in Mam and other languages as well as a health-focused Radio Poder program that airs in Spanish, Mam, Mixteco Alto, Mixteco Bajo, K’iche’ and Purépecha.

He also noted the Oregon Health Authority's role in establishing the Centro de Atención a Comunidades Indígenas, a Lincoln County program that began after the wildfires and one of the state’s largest agricultural workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 at Pacific Seafood last summer highlighted the need to provide health and safety information in Indigenous languages.

The COVID-19 Farmworker Study, a project that surveyed 300 farmworkers across the state, found the pandemic’s impact generally was more pronounced for Indigenous farmworkers, who may represent about 40% of Oregon farmworkers. One of the project’s policy recommendations was for state agencies and community-based organizations to increase their supports for Indigenous farmworkers, starting with bridging language gaps.

The survey found Indigenous farmworkers were more likely than non-Indigenous farmworkers to report losing weeks and months of work and were less likely to have heard of resources like the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance to people whose immigration status prevents them from accessing unemployment insurance and stimulus checks.

Other outreach efforts continue

Protecting Oregon Farmworkers continues working with a network of 19 mostly community-based organizations and federally qualified health centers around the state.

On a recent Thursday, organizations such as Mano a Mano and Oregon Human Development Corporation were distributing resources along with the Oregon Health Authority to farmworkers at a farm labor contractor’s office in Brooks.

They also visit agricultural labor housing, apartment complexes, shopping centers, churches and other places farmworkers congregate to reduce as many time, scheduling and transportation barriers as possible to accessing the vaccine and other resources, Vera said.

“What we have learned through this process, and we already knew this, is that in working with Latino communities and migrant and seasonal farmworkers, It takes the physical presence and in-person presence to make that real connection,” he said.

Dora Totoian covers agricultural workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-covered issues and communities. You can reach her at [email protected].

This story was originally published by the Statesman Journal.