On Feb. 9, President Biden announced the immunization program for community health centers (FQHC), which includes farmworkers, but the governor has not yet included them in the immunization rollout.
This article originally appeared in Spanish.
If you ask Luis Jiménez how he feels about farmworkers not being included yet in the New York State’s vaccination eligibility, he will probably say: It’s as if farmworkers are third-class essential workers.
For Jiménez, who works on a dairy farm in upstate New York, the fact that workers like him were not included comes as no surprise. He illustrates with a short story. “Recently the rancher tested positive [for Coronavirus], he notified his family, and his family got tested. At the ranch, he told the American workers that they should get tested but didn’t say the same to other [immigrant] workers to do so. He didn’t suggest we get tested,” Jiménez says over the phone, cows mooing in the background.
“I got tested because I have children, but the way he behaved speaks volumes,” he says with a hint of disappointment.
On Feb. 9, President Biden announced the first phase of the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) Program for COVID-19 vaccination “that will provide more vaccines for Community Health Centers that are reaching our underserved and most vulnerable communities,” reads the White House statement about the initiative. This program will directly allocate a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine to select HRSA-funded health centers, and the federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) includes “migrant/seasonal farmworkers” as among those vulnerable populations. These vaccines would be in addition to the current allocation given to New York State.
The national FQHC program was slated to begin the week of Feb. 15, allocating approximately 1 million doses to selected health centers nationwide during the initial phase, according to the White House. It’s not clear how many doses would go specifically to New York under the program, but some local FQHCs participating say they have already sent a direct request for a specific number of vaccines.
But it’s not clear when those doses, when received, will be able to go to New York’s farmworkers, one of the vulnerable groups specifically targeted by the initiative. Farmworkers are included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) list of prioritized groups for current vaccination phase 1B, “but not in the priorities identified by the NYS Governor,” highlights Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University.
City Limits asked both Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and the State Health Department when New York expects to expand vaccine eligibility to agricultural workers, but received no response.
“We’re caught on this dilemma,” says Anne Nolon, executive director of Sun River Health, one of the largest community health centers with 43 centers in the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island. They are one of seven FQHCs chosen by the federal government to be included in the program’s second cohort, she adds. There are 21 FQHCs selected for the federal program in total: 14 in the city, the others upstate, according to Nolon.
“States’ priorities will take effect,” warns Nolon. Sun River Health will complete the process of requesting 3,300 vaccine doses for the federal program in the next day or two, adds Nolon. They plan to receive them in March, but in order to inoculate farmworkers or other vulnerable populations defined by HRSA, such as patients with limited English proficiency, those groups must be part of the state’s current vaccination phase.
Some farmworkers with underlying conditions included as part of the state’s latest extension have gotten vaccinated, but according to the federal program, all of them should already be eligible.
Dudley, who also serves on Finger Lakes Community Health Center Board — another of the community centers operating in rural New York State — says the Center was also selected to receive vaccines under the federal program, has already applied, and is now just waiting for farmworkers to be included in the New York’s vaccination phase.
“These health centers are known and trusted by the farmworkers, have the cultural competency and language abilities necessary to make vaccine distribution successful,” Dudley says.
Once they get the green light from the state, their plan would consist of not only vaccinating farmworkers at community health centers but also at workplaces such as farms and processing plants. “The clinics are poised to go to farms with mobile units with refrigeration equipment to keep vaccines at the necessary temperature to administer vaccines,” says Dudley, adding that the efforts are similar to the flu clinics they have run for over 20 years.
Northeast Dairy Foods Association, New York Farm Bureau (NYFB), and other agricultural organizations are working to get the industry included in the state’s vaccination plans. “In New York alone, the dairy processing and manufacturing industry supports approximately over 63,000 jobs (these are at processing/manufacturing facilities, not on farms),” says Alex Walsh, Associate Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for the Northeast Dairy Foods Association.
“NYFB has also made farmworker vaccinations a top priority for our organization and is encouraging members to send messages to the NYS Department of Health calling for employees to be included in Phase 1B,” says Steve Ammerman, the organization’s director of communications.
Removed from the list
The industry, along with community health centers and farmworker organizations, has been pushing for months for farm and food processing workers to be included in the state’s Phase 1B for vaccination eligibility, which currently includes New Yorkers over 65, those with certain pre-existing health conditions and several categories of essential workers, including teachers and those in the restaurant industry.
In December 2020, Gov. Cuomo released a vaccination schedule for various populations and determined where they were in line to receive the vaccine when it became available. Initially, agricultural and food processing workers were not clearly defined in any of the phases proposed by the state. “Northeast Dairy Foods Association lobbied Governor Cuomo, the state departments of Health and Agriculture and Markets, as well as state legislators to include agriculture and food processing employees in the earliest phase possible,” Walsh said via email.
For a while, the state agreed and included agriculture and food processing employees into phase 1B, which was scheduled to begin Jan. 11, but a last-minute decision by Cuomo dropped them from the vaccine rollout. City Limits also inquired with the governor’s office to learn more about this change but did not receive a response.
At the time, it was argued that farmworkers were removed from the list due to lack of supplies in New York as well as many other states, which are not receiving enough vaccine doses as quickly as expected.
“We are all frustrated at the process of waiting on vaccines to become available, and that we were included in phase 1B then removed and now seeing other groups being added to the eligibility list. We also understand that this is a challenging time and that we simply have to be patient. The agriculture and food processing industries are anxious to be inoculated,” writes Walsh.
On Feb. 12, state government officials met with representatives of seven organizations but again failed to provide a possible date for initiating vaccination for agricultural workers.
“One of the reasons why we continue to be excluded from the vaccine plan, even though they know that farmworkers are essential, is that we have no representation in the negotiations,” says Jiménez, who in addition to working at a dairy is also the president of the immigrant-farmworkers organization Alianza Agrícola, which was not invited to the meeting.
Jiménez feels that he is seen as a third-class essential worker not only at his workplace, where he does not feel that his life is a priority for his employer but also in New York State, which praises immigrants but has yet to prioritize farmworkers’ health through vaccine priority.
“The conclusion we come to is that it’s the same old thing: they don’t care and don’t give a…” Jiménez says, interrupted by cows mooing.