Sources—including farmworkers, leaders of farmworker organizations, advocates and community centers that target this group—report that vaccination is going well, with thousands of farmworkers estimated to have received the shots.

Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing a plan to open mobile vaccine sites on state farms.

This article originally appeared in Spanish. Lea la versión en español aquí

After farmworkers were dropped from New York State’s earlier vaccination plans, despite being prioritized for access by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s suggestions, thousands of agricultural workers have successfully received the injection since the COVID-19 vaccine became available to people 30 and older in late March.

“If farmers had been eligible sooner, that might have offered the opportunity to make estimations for those checking eligibility criteria early on,” says Julie Sorensen, the director of the Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH).

It’s not clear exactly what percentage of the agricultural workforce has been vaccinated so far, however, industry sources who spoke with City Limits estimate that thousands of farmworkers have gotten the shots.

“For the most part, vaccination data is not being collected by occupational category,” says via email Richard E. Stup, agricultural workforce development specialist at Cornell University.

Sun River Health, one of the largest community health centers in the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island, doesn’t have exact figures either. However, sources—including farmworkers, leaders of farmworker organizations, advocates, and community centers that target this group—told City Limits that the majority of farmworkers have been vaccinated.

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One of the rare places with low vaccination levels among farmworkers has been Long Island.

According to Angel Reyes, Rural & Migrant Ministry’s regional coordinator in the area, anecdotal information suggests that 50 percent of the 200 workers with whom he has contact have been vaccinated.

“There were no access difficulties because they were communities of color and immigrants. In a way, that gives me a lot of joy. If we consider that this is a rural, isolated group,” says Reyes. “I think it has gone well.” 

This was the only region that did not report a larger majority of farmworkers vaccinated to date. In the Western New York area, which covers counties such as Wayne and Ontario, the number of vaccinated farmworkers is higher.

“I would say that 80 percent of the population of each ranch is vaccinated. There is always one or two that don’t accept,” says Rural & Migrant Ministry’s coordinator for that region, Wilmer Jiménez. In this western area, Jiménez believes he has contact with more than 400 workers.

“Most farmworkers have had common side effects. Some took the day off and we would make sure the rancher knew that the worker had been vaccinated and that it was considered a sick day, so it was paid,” says Jimenez.

“We would give the farmworker a leaflet, so they felt protected,” Jimenez explains.

But not all farms have followed this rule of paying the side effect-sick day to workers.

Alianza Agrícola, a farmworker-led grassroots organization operating in Livingston and Wyoming counties, has reported a couple of such cases.

“There are places where ranch owners took that day as if it was a day off,” says Luis Jiménez, president of Alianza Agrícola. “Each ranch has its own policies.”

Vaccination strategies

One of the most common vaccination strategies used by dairies and farms is to divide their workforce into groups so that vaccination is done in batches, preventing a large number of workers who experience side effect symptoms from missing work.

Since March, for example, Finger Lakes Community Health Center has conducted vaccination campaigns on about 110 farms, with several requesting multiple vaccination days for their workers, totaling 244 visits.

“That’s 1,300 [vaccinated] farmworkers, undercounting,” says Finger Lakes Community Health Center CEO Mary Zelazny.

Part of what makes their efforts successful, Zelazny explains, is offering multiple vaccination options. People could make individual or group appointments — as several farm owners did — and health centers offered a more flexible schedule so that working hours were not an impediment. Mobile units could go to the farms directly, offering both the vaccine as well as educational outreach.

Oak Orchard Health Center, a federally funded community health center, has implemented a similar strategy in the northwestern side of the state. Between 270 and 300 farmworkers have gone directly to one of Oak Orchard Health Centers, says Anthony DiBenedetto, the organization’s patient engagement manager. 

“In partnership with other institutions, over 1,000 [vaccinated] farmworkers,” says DiBenedetto, who estimates that 80 percent of farmworkers have received the shot.

“Hesitancy has fluctuated. It was very high at the beginning and went down. Once the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was [momentarily] pulled out, hesitancy went up again,” he added.

Johnson & Johnson went from being the vaccine of choice for many farmworkers, because it was only one dose, to becoming the least requested and the one that generates the most rejection today, DiBenedetto explains.

DiBenedetto is most concerned about dairy workers, because of the long work hours and the isolation experienced by farmworkers that live and work on them. 

In those cases, DiBenedetto explains, a first visit is planned to focus on health education and discuss discounted health programs. “We gain a little bit of trust, then we plan a second visit for vaccination.” 

In the same area of northwestern New York State but different counties, Luis Jiménez gives a different report. “Most of the ranches I know—even the small ones who employ three, two, or even one farmworker—have been vaccinated,” says Jiménez, who adds that more than 90 percent of the workers who are part of his organization are vaccinated.

“The multi-faceted outreach approach in Wyoming County, NY, helped farm owners work with their employees to provide access to targeted clinics that reached nearly 170 people in the local farm community who were seeking vaccinations,” says Joan Sinclair Petzen, the regional farm business management specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program.

“It has been impressive how so many organizations and the farm community worked collaboratively and enthusiastically to increase vaccination rates,” says Sorensen. “Very inspiring.”

This high vaccination has meant that no new outbreaks of coronavirus infection have been reported on farms in any of the areas where the sources City Limits spoke to work in recent weeks. 

Jiménez hopes the pandemic will lead to continued conversations around the health needs of agricultural workers, like the lack of health insurance for farmworkers.

“Employers have taken vaccination seriously because they don’t want to lose a worker. They used to not ask you how you’re doing or how you’re feeling. In the past, they didn’t say anything when you had the flu. COVID-19 changed that,” says Jiménez. “If they cared about our health they would have provided insurance to check our health, our teeth, our eyes. Honestly, they care more about the cows’ health.”’