Food system workers may get early access to a Covid-19 vaccine, but how should states prepare?

With food system workers likely to get early access to any future Covid-19 vaccine, experts say state and local officials should start outreach now to overcome language, trust, and access barriers that could shrink workers’ uptake of the vaccine.

Many states have prioritized agricultural and food processing workers for the Covid-19 vaccine, draft plans submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-October show. A vaccine may be available for the highest priority population groups, such as frontline healthcare providers, in early 2021, though the timeline will likely change and be shaped by input from president-elect Joe Biden’s new Covid-19 task force.

The issue has united labor advocates, the food industry, and public health experts, who all agree that food system workers should get the vaccine early. But officials will need to use a range of tools to reach workers in a sector that has been pummeled by the virus. According to FERN’s Covid-19 tracker, as of Nov. 9, more than 72,500 food system workers have contracted Covid-19 — including over 9 percent of the nation’s meatpacking workers — at over 1,400 workplace outbreaks. At least 327 workers have died.

Trust is a major issue, with some workers worried about getting insufficient information about the vaccine’s safety or side effects before being offered the shots. Farmworkers are especially cautious about vaccine safety because of the conditions and risks they’ve already been dealing with for months, says Edgar Franks, political director at the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

“If it wasn’t clear already, it is now, that these workers feel that they’re expendable and that they’re just being used for their labor,” Franks says. “They definitely don’t want to be put in that situation again if a vaccine comes along,” he added, with some fearing “they’re going to try it out on them to make sure it’s going to be safe for everybody else.”

Labor advocates are also concerned that vaccinating workers could be seen as a panacea for addressing the full range of workplace exposure risks, despite an ongoing lack of masks, cramped work environments, and irregular access to testing. A vaccine shouldn’t reduce the pressure and urgency on employers to take these basic steps to protect workers, they say. 

“Protections are important, and that includes a vaccine,” says Alexis Guild, director of health policy and programs at Farmworker Justice. “But also, a vaccine doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t still be protections in place at the workplace to protect workers from Covid.”

Once a vaccine is available, states plan to allocate doses using a three- or four-phase approach, with healthcare workers at high risk of exposure receiving first priority. In most states’ plans reviewed by FERN, agricultural and food processing workers would receive the vaccine in the first or second phase. That includes major meatpacking states like Nebraska, North Carolina, and Arkansas, and states that have had many Covid-19 outbreaks in the food sector, like California, Colorado, and Indiana. In some states, food workers with comorbidities, who live in shared housing or who are over 65 could also receive the vaccine sooner.

The food industry has lobbied federal and state officials for months for food workers to get early access to a Covid-19 vaccine. In a June letter, fifteen food industry groups, including the North American Meat Institute and United Fresh Produce Association, wrote to President Trump asking that “food and agriculture workers be given the next highest priority for receiving the vaccine behind our nation’s healthcare workers, first responders, and high-risk individuals.”

And according to public records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at The Brown Institute for Media Innovation and reviewed by FERN, Smithfield Foods sent a letter to the county’s public health director on Sept. 30 encouraging vaccine prioritization for its workers.

“Food and agriculture workers are heroes. They have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, ensuring Americans have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food, and they should be at the front of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine as well,” wrote Smithfield president Ken Sullivan and chief operating officer Dennis Organ in the letter. “This prioritization will ensure that our employees remain as healthy and safe as possible so that Americans continue to have food.”

The executives also note that the company has “taken extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible,” and call on government officials to “do the same” with vaccine priority. FERN has counted over 2,700 cases and 8 deaths from Covid-19 at Smithfield plants since the pandemic began.

 States’ vaccine plans were informed in part by a report issued in October by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report called for food and agriculture workers to be prioritized for a vaccine soon after healthcare workers and first responders because their “work is vital to the function of society and the economy” and because they are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19.

“There are many reasons why food system workers are at increased risk of infection and disease, including prolonged close workplace contact with coworkers, frequent community contact with fellow workers, mobility of the workforce (i.e., migrant workers), shared transportation to and from the workplace, lack of paid sick leave, and congregate housing situations,” the report reads.

The report also recommended that the vaccine be provided to all workers regardless of immigration status. “Not all critical risk workers are U.S. citizens or green card holders; some may have come to the United States as refugees or may be undocumented,” the report says. “All workers in this population group need to be provided the vaccine, and special efforts must be made to reach these workers in ways that encourage them to be vaccinated.”

The report was shaped by input from food and farm labor experts, including Guild at Farmworker Justice and representatives from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the National Employment Law Project. In the comments she provided to the National Academies, Guild says she emphasized the need for public health departments to identify “trusted messengers” in worker communities who can spread accurate information about the vaccine. But there are other important issues, too.

“Are they able to access the vaccine at no cost? What if they don’t have health insurance? What if they’re undocumented?” she says. “Ensuring that any strategy for vaccine allocation includes all those different pieces is extremely important.”

Community input is also vital to ensuring the vaccine gets buy-in from workers, says Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“If you’re talking about essential workers, who represents that population? Or who from that population should be there?” she says. “Communities should speak for themselves. You can’t say you have more knowledge and expertise than somebody who has to go to work in these conditions.”

Notes from a September meeting of the North Carolina Covid-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, obtained via the Mecklenburg County public records request, show state officials and public health experts are already considering how to address obstacles to vaccine uptake among food system workers.

“Many farmworkers and meat processing workers do not speak English and have low rates of literacy in their own languages,” reads one comment from the meeting’s Zoom chatbox. “The best way to communicate are short videos on Facebook with lots of graphics in the languages that this population speaks.”

Another participant reported that some farmworkers and meatpacking workers were concerned about being charged for Covid-19 testing or a vaccine. “Want to make sure we’re controlling the messaging to reassure people that they won’t get a bill,” they said.

The group proposed doing outreach and sharing information via Spanish-language radio stations, print education materials, and local advocacy groups.

 In addition to these considerations, labor advocates agree that state officials should still work towards implementing more rigorous workplace protections for food system workers, even as a vaccine may be rolled out in the coming months. Administering a vaccine without accompanying workplace standards is “sort of like treating the symptoms and not the problem,” says Hollis.

“People need to work,” she says. “But nobody needs to work in conditions that could lead to the deaths of themselves or their families.”

Lead image: Nurse practitioner Debbi Hinderliter, left, collected a sample from a woman at a coronavirus testing site in San Diego in August. AP Photo/Gregory Bull.

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