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'A death sentence': Activists call on Florida governor to prioritize vaccines for farmworkers

"Farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to infection," says an advocate, as the state has the country's third-highest number of Covid cases in the last seven days.
Image: Farm workers harvest zucchini in Florida City
Farm workers harvest zucchini in Florida City last April.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

On a farm in Plant City, Florida, María Alvarez and her husband have been working throughout the pandemic, picking what’s in season and planting for the next.

Alvarez, 34, is worried about getting infected with Covid-19 while she works with dozens of other migrant workers during shifts that last up to 12 hours.

“When we arrive to pick up the boxes, we’re very close to each other," she said. "Then we head back to go picking and we’re still close. There’s no social distancing."

Alvarez is eager to get vaccinated, saying it would be "a shield" for her.

Farmworker organizations are pleading with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to make vaccinating such farmworkers a priority. Advocates cite the risks facing workers who live and work in crowded conditions and are often not given protective equipment by employers, making them vulnerable to infection.

Image: Farm workers harvest zucchini in Florida City
Farm workers harvest zucchini in Florida City on April 1, 2020.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“Now what happens when you have people living three families to a house and you’re denied them vaccination? It’s like a death sentence,” said the Rev. Frank O’Loughlin, 79, a Catholic priest and founder of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida, which provides support to migrant farmworkers.

When O’Loughlin heard Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ past remarks associating the spread of Covid-19 on farmworkers and day laborers, he saw an opportunity for his nonprofit to help inoculate farmworkers.

DeSantis broke with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and announced in December that the state would focus on vaccinating residents over 65 after the first round went to health care workers, instead of prioritizing essential workers such as public transportation employees or teachers.

In a Jan. 11 letter obtained by NBC News, several organizations, including O'Loughlin's, wrote to DeSantis, urging him to "prioritize essential farmworkers for the Covid-19 vaccine independent of their immigration status," as well as improve health care access and coronavirus testing.

“In many ways, recognizing farmworkers as essential has kept the people in Florida from falling into the uncertainty and cynicism that results from empty grocery store shelves,” the letter reads.

Florida, with a population of over 21 million, has had the third-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. over the past seven days, just after Texas and California. It has had the fourth-highest death toll over that time, after California, Texas and Indiana.

Vaccinations are the latest hurdle for farmworkers since the pandemic began. When the spring harvest was underway, organizations were forced to beg the state for medical supplies and protective equipment that arrived late. Over the summer, there was a surge in Covid-19 cases in agricultural communities but testing was limited. Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian group, sent teams to Florida and helped set up mobile clinics.

“Farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to infection,” said Oscar Londoño, executive director of WeCount!, an organization out of Homestead, a city south of Miami with vast agricultural areas, and one of the groups that signed the letter to DeSantis.

Vaccinating farmworkers would reduce hospitalization and mortality rates, Londoño said, pointing out farmworkers' lack of access to adequate health care and paid sick days. Some workers go to work feeling ill because they're afraid of losing their jobs if they call out sick, he said. Londoño said it was a mistake for the governor to break with CDC guidelines.

The letter to the governor stated that among 600 farmworkers in Palm Beach County who were regularly tested for Covid-19, the positivity rate was consistently 30 percent, a high number that worries advocates.

To date, O’Loughlin said they have not heard back from DeSantis’ office regarding the letter. “And we have not done well in persuading the agricultural industry to speak up,” he said.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests by NBC News for comment.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who spoke to NBC News on Feb. 18 after the story first published, said she and her team have been vocal about prioritizing vaccines for the county's farmworkers. But she said an executive order would have to determine that, which would then allow her county to start the process. She fears though it might be too late for a two-dose vaccination to take place before the end of May if that isn’t decided soon.

“Once May comes around, you start to see that population of farmworkers migrate north, they head into Georgia, they head into the Carolinas, you even see them move as far north as upstate New York and Michigan,” Commissioner McKinlay told NBC News from West Palm Beach.

“So if we’re here now near the end of February, if we vaccinate them, if we wait a few weeks more and we get the first vaccine in them, if somehow, miraculously, somebody declares them a priority, which I think they need to be, you could be in a situation where you put the vaccine in their arm, you wait that 21 to 28 days in between vaccines, and by the time that comes around, they’ve gone to a different state, and we’ve lost that opportunity to track them, and to make sure they’re fully protected,” she said.

Commissioner McKinlay said she sent a letter to the governor on Feb. 23 urging him to include farmworkers in the list of those who are eligible to get vaccines.

Breaking through barriers, misinformation

For Herlinda, 40, an undocumented farmworker in Palm Beach County, buying her own personal protective equipment has become part of her job as she works the field, adding compost and picking and cleaning flowers that are sold to landscapers, wholesale companies and other buyers.

“We’re not safe at work. All of a sudden, you get ill and one doesn’t know,” said Herlinda, who is being identified only by her first name because of her immigration status. “I need to support my children and if I get ill [for] two, three weeks, that’s a lot for me. That’s why I worry a lot,” she explained.

Florida’s surgeon general announced in January that those seeking shots would have to show proof of residency, amid concerns that nonresident visitors were flying to Florida to get vaccinated. Many farmworkers are guest workers with temporary visas or no legal documents, and showing a utility bill or rental agreement could be complicated.

Farmworker advocates say vaccinations have to be done regardless of farmworkers’ immigration status.

Misinformation that has spread in Spanish has also taken a toll. Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, a general coordinator at the Farmworker’s Association of Florida, said some of the farmworkers he has contacted have expressed a hesitancy about getting vaccinated.

"What I have heard a few times is, 'We’ll just let those who are eager to get it first. If they don’t die, then I can go get it,'” said Xiuhtecutli.

The language barrier also worries advocates. Isaret Jeffers, founder of Colectivo Arbol, told NBC News that most of the forms and information regarding Covid-19 are in English, but most of the farmworkers speak Spanish or Indigenous languages.

As part of a grassroots effort to inform migrant farmworkers about Covid-19, O’Loughlin said his center has been calling a 1,000 or so farmworker families, speaking to them in their native languages and sharing pertinent coronavirus information in areas with a scarcity of information.

Florida is a specialty crop state with more than 47,000 farms running on 9.7 million acres, according to scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "Many of the fruit and vegetable crops are labor intensive and harvested by hand because of their fragile nature,” according to a spokesperson for the institute.

Across Florida, there are about 138,000 full-time and part-time jobs in agriculture, according to the spokesperson. The information shows that almost half (48 percent) are hired domestic workers and almost a quarter (24 percent) are working through the federal Temporary Agricultural Workers program and 28 percent are sole proprietors.

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