A volunteer with Salud Sin Fronteras, which advocates for vaccine and other COVID-related protections for the region’s farmworkers, monitored a line of farmworkers who were waiting to be vaccinated outside Desert Pharmacy in El Centro during a clinic on Monday evening, Feb. 22, where up to 20 farmworkers received a first dose. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Imperial County’s Farmworkers Finally Get Their Due, As Dosing ‘Equity’ Increases

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California’s COVID vaccination rollout has been rocky from day one, especially locally, with Imperial County slow to receive adequate doses in one of the hardest-hit areas, but this week might have been a sign that the tide is changing.

Imperial County, however, remains near the bottom of a ranking of California’s 58 counties on doses administered per 100,000 residents at 49th in the state, according to the latest data.

Yet county Public Health Department officials were enthusiastic to announce on Tuesday, Feb. 23, that as many as 5,000 doses of vaccine would be circulating throughout the community this week, including a mass drive-through vaccination clinic for farm laborers and other agriculture-related employees at Imperial Valley College on Friday, Feb. 26., where reportedly 1,000 doses are to be administered.

Getting farmworkers vaccinated in a county driven by a farm-based economy was slow-going, though, and as of late last week, a local farmworker advocacy group and a local pharmacy joined together to jumpstart the vaccination of farmworkers on their own.

A line of farmworkers waits to be vaccinated outside Desert Pharmacy in El Centro during a clinic on Monday evening, Feb. 22, where up to 20 farmworkers received a first dose. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

As many as 20 farm laborers on Monday evening, Feb. 22, were the first to receive their first doses of the vaccine in Imperial County when they arrived at Desert Pharmacy in El Centro.

The workers were rounded up by some of the various social-justice organizations that form Salud Sin Fronteras, a group dedicated to serving the farmworker population’s COVID-19-related needs in Imperial and Coachella valleys, at the request of Desert Pharmacy co-owner, Carrie Teague and her partner.

“We always felt it was important to have equality but also equity in terms of how (the vaccine is) distributed. … We thought, ‘It’s important to vaccinate our farmworkers,” Teague said during an interview on Sunday night, Feb. 21.

With the planning of Monday’s impromptu farmworker vaccination event underway since late last week, Teague spoke to the Calexico Chronicle just a few hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke to the state at a press conference in Inglewood, where he acknowledged the state’s failings on the equitable distribution of vaccine to Black and Brown communities and essential subpopulations like agricultural workers.

In fact, shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, Newsom tweeted that in addition to other equity-based measures, 34,000 doses of vaccine were being set aside specifically for farmworkers.

An unidentified farmworker shows off his COVID-19 vaccination card, as a Salud Sin Fronteras volunteer stands nearby, after he received a first dose at Desert Pharmacy in El Centro during a clinic on Monday evening, Feb. 22, where up to 20 farmworkers received vaccinations. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“Equity is our priority,” he wrote in the tweet.

Late Monday night, the county Public Health Department responded to Newsom’s wishes when a press release went out announcing that farmworkers, and those high-risk individuals in the state and county’s Phase 1B Tier 1 vaccination plan could be vaccinated as soon as Feb. 26.

“We’re pleased to be able to offer vaccines to these additional sectors as more vaccine is being made available to Imperial County,” Public Health Director Janette Angulo stated in the release.

Imperial County Getting More Doses

Imperial County Public Health was to receive its largest first-dose allocation to date, with some 3,770 doses of vaccine expected to be delivered this week on the heels of just 1,000 doses last week.

In addition to the 3,770 already due here, Angulo reported on Feb. 23 that 1,000 additional doses were arriving for farmworkers, 400 for educators, and there were 700 arriving this week that were delayed last week due to weather conditions further east.

In all, Angulo said there would more than 5,000 doses circulating in the community this week.

It still has not been explicitly stated by county officials whether that increase in local vaccine allocation, which was announced prior to Newsom’s various equity demands on Feb. 19, was precipitated by the Board of Supervisors demands for more doses, which was supported by various city councils in the county. Public Health had been averaging about 1,000 to 1,500 doses a week at most, yet the timing of the increased allotments does appear analogous with a second letter regarding allocation that was sent by the county board on Feb. 11.

County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. was asked late last week whether the new, larger allocation could be attributed to the county’s letter, which was basically a shot over the state’s bough in terms of criticizing Newsom’s own statements on health equity.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, you and your administration has declared its commitment to health equity. … ‘Equity’ was and has been a theme that has resonated in your messages in regard to COVID-19 response efforts, yet we ask, where is the equity in the vaccine allocation distribution to counties?” the Feb. 11 states.

“I do think they are getting the letters and do hope they are working, because the board will be sending them to insure we are being heard, and our community is receiving what we should be getting,” Rouhotas Jr. said on Thursday evening, Feb. 18, after the day’s joint press conference with the media.

District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar, whose disgust and frustration with the allocation process prompted the Feb. 11 letter, could not say for certain whether the letter hit its mark, but he was hopeful it did.

An unidentified farmworker from Mexico was hand harvesting purple hoary stock flowers in a field off Lack Road in Westmorland on Saturday, Feb. 20, where the flowers are being grown in an array of colors. The worker photographed, who was in his second year harvesting the flowers, said the flowers are mostly exported to China and other locales to be used for mostly perfume. The first farmworkers in Imperial County were vaccinated on Monday evening, Feb. 22, in El Centro. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“I can assume the letter ruffled some feathers to get us a larger allocation, to which I am grateful,” Escobar said during a brief interview on Saturday, Feb. 20.

Indeed, how much more vaccine will make its way to Imperial County and how fast it can get in the arms of both seniors and eligible essential workers remains to be seen. As of Feb. 25, though, the county continues to sit far down the ranking of California counties for doses administered.

For a couple weeks, Imperial County had ranked about three-quarters of the way down the list of the state’s 58 counties for doses given per 100,000 residents (based on Imperial County’s 180,000-plus residents), but that ranking plunged on Monday. On Thursday, Feb. 25, Imperial County was sitting just 10 spots from the bottom.

“Our job, as elected officials, is to advocate unwaveringly for equal allocations that we know for a fact have not been equitable for the county of Imperial, and that is what every elected official and individual should be fighting for,” Escobar continued.

Ranked No. 49 of 58 counties, Imperial County showed just 12,790.2 doses administered per 100,000 residents, or 23,050 doses total administered.

Changes Ahead in Vaccine Distribution?

During the Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 23, Director Angulo gave her weekly report and assessment of the state of vaccine allocation and administration in the county.

Angulo reported that the county and state has moved away from first-dose-second-dose designations and has included everything in one bucket to get vaccine in arms faster. Some 2,300 does the county was holding onto for second doses were redistributed to 21 providers between last week and Monday, Feb. 22.

Angulo stated on Tuesday that the new shift in priority will that any vaccine received by Public Health will be distributed and circulated back into the community within one week.

Such was the case when some 965 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were turned over to Dr. Tien Vo, who put together a drive-through mass vaccination clinic for those 65 and older in the parking lot of the Calexico 10 Theatres on Sunday, Feb. 21. He was continuing to vaccinate seniors at his Calexico clinic on Cole Boulevard through Tuesday, Feb. 23, if necessary, to use up the rest of the doses.

Carrie Teague said her Desert Pharmacy was also the beneficiary of 100 more doses last week.

This also comes as Blue Shield, a third-party contractor brought on by the state, was supposed to oversee the allocation and distribution process in California as of Sunday, Feb. 21., with Imperial County part of that first wave. However, Angulo said that as of Feb. 23, that had not started yet.

Comite Civico Del Valle director Luis Olmedo said Blue Shield, to his knowledge, was to have some of the state’s desired health-equity metrics built into its processes.

Angulo has said before that once Blue Shield takes over, the county will no longer be the agency to receive the vaccine and parse it out to hospitals and providers; rather, Blue Shield was to begin to deal with the providers directly. It’s not known when that will happen.

Getting Farmworkers Vaccinated

Meanwhile, the process the county started late last week to convert stockpiled second doses and first doses into an aggregate pipeline made perfect sense to Teague.

She said part of the decision to vaccinate farmworkers against the recommendations of county Public Health was to act in the spirit of Gov. Newsom’s further emphasis on Feb. 19, of equitable distribution, that is, getting vaccine to the state’s most disadvantaged and adversely affected populations and subgroups.

Teague and Olmedo said that Newsom stated on Feb. 19 that vaccine should be divided along a 70 percent-30 percent split, which is to say, 70 percent should go to seniors and 30 percent to other eligible populations like farm laborers.

Angulo announced that same new pattern of distribution during her county board report on Feb. 23.

An unidentified farmworker from Mexico was hand harvesting purple hoary stock flowers in a field off Lack Road in Westmorland on Saturday, Feb. 20, where the flowers are being grown in an array of colors. The worker photographed, who was in his second year harvesting the flowers, said the flowers are mostly exported to China and other locales to be used for mostly perfume. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Under the former distribution model the county had been using, 80 percent was being given to providers to use for seniors and the remaining 20 percent has been kept by the health department to conduct curbside and mobile clinics targeting the other eligible Phase 1A populations and, if available, starting the inoculation of Phase 1B populations, which include the state’s 6 million seniors, both educators and childcare workers, emergency services workers, and the food and agriculture workers, which are estimated be between 315,000 and 800,000 in California, depending on estimates.

Up until Monday night’s announcement from county Public Health, Angulo has said there has not been enough available vaccine to start on farmworkers.

Olmedo, who is also a principal member of the farmworker health-equity group, Salud Sin Fronteras, which advocates for vaccine and other COVID-related protections for the region’s ag labor force, does not think Imperial County Public Health had anything but good intentions in mind with its emphasis on seniors, yet Olmedo, his group, and Desert Pharmacy’s Teague think the spirit of equitable distribution was not being met.

That is why Teague reached out to Salud Sin Fronteras, so it could help her adhere to that sense of equity, keeping to what the county wants, but also what Newsom was asking.

To see how far behind Imperial County is in vaccinating its farmworkers — who could number as high as 10,000, possibly more, if one considers that nearly 13,000 jobs were directly tied to agriculture in 2016 — a person just has to look north, to the Coachella Valley, where Imperial County shares a state Assembly district, a similar economic base, and a comparably diverse population.

Coachella Valley’s Desert Healthcare District, based in Palm Springs, estimates that as of Feb. 22 a total of 4,130 doses of vaccine have been administered to area farmworkers — 3,800 first doses and, already, 330 second doses.

None had been officially given in Imperial County until Monday, and somewhat in direct-yet-softened opposition to the county’s wishes, according to Olmedo and Teague.

“They haven’t told us not to do the farmworkers,” Teague said, but the implication all along has been to use all available doses on seniors.

Angulo had no idea that 20 farmworkers were vaccinated locally when contacted Monday afternoon.

To find those farmworkers, Olmedo said Teague sought out Salud Sin Fronteras to find the laborers who would help the pharmacy meet its goals — vaccinate 70 percent seniors and 30 percent essential populations, like Newsom suggested.

The challenge was thrown down to Salud Sin Fronteras member agencies, including Comite Civico, Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, Los Amigos De La Comunidad, Our Roots Multicultural Center, La Union Hace La Fuerza, and Coalicion de Buena Salud y Bienestar Comunitario, all of which were to each find two to four farmworkers and bring them to Desert Pharmacy on Monday evening, Olmedo said.

To that end, the county clarified its intentions with regards to farmworkers and others on Monday, with the Public Health Department announcing that vaccine would be available for Phase 1B Tier 1 high-risk individuals working in education, childcare, emergency services, and food and agriculture. Public Health stated they would be working directly with employers in these sectors schedule vaccination dates and location of clinics.

“We’ve been collaborating with an array of partners to start the rollout of the vaccine to Phase 1B Tier 1 sectors in a coordinated way,” Angulo stated in the press release. “Because so much of our population consists of individuals working in food and agriculture and education, we’re extremely grateful to Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, Imperial County Farm Bureau, Imperial County Office of Education and others for their partnership in these efforts.” 

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