Officials in Umatilla and Morrow counties are ramping up vaccine efforts after receiving approval from the state to broaden eligibility to agricultural workers immediately in an effort to help a workforce hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.

While agricultural workers, food processing workers, pregnant women and people ages 45 and up with underlying conditions became eligible statewide on Monday, March 29, Umatilla and Morrow counties had already received permission to start vaccinating those groups a week early.

In Morrow County, officials from the Oregon Health Authority worked with county officials at a four-day mass vaccination clinic at the Sage Center in Boardman through Saturday, March 27.

Akiko Saito, deputy director for the COVID-19 response and recovery unit, a joint division between the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the clinic was a “pilot project” specifically geared to immunize a community long understood to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

In all, officials vaccinated over 1,000 agricultural workers at the clinic, according to the Morrow County Health Department.

Saito said state officials are looking to hold similar efforts statewide. State officials recently conducted a survey with 585 agricultural facilities that showed more than 21,000 workers were eligible for the vaccine.

“We’re working with our local public health authorities to connect agricultural, migrant and seasonal workplaces to see if they can do an event(s) like this” across Oregon, Saito said.

In Umatilla County, health officials have started reaching out to agricultural and food processing facilities, hoping to bring vaccines to people who are both hard to connect with and often can’t take time off work.

“We are trying to aggressively get enough vaccines and set up (opportunities) for the farmworkers to get vaccinated,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said.

The efforts come in response to an announcement from Gov. Kate Brown, saying the state would speed up its vaccination timeline to meet the Biden administration’s goal of having all adults in the country eligible for a vaccine by May 1. Other categories of essential workers, such as grocery store workers, as well as people under age 45 with underlying conditions, will become eligible for the vaccine on Monday, April 5.

Vaccines for the vulnerable

The change in Morrow and Umatilla counties is especially geared toward a community of frontline workers that have borne the brunt of the pandemic — Hispanic and Latino agricultural workers.

In Umatilla County, Hispanic residents accounted for more than 40% of the county’s total COVID-19 cases in 2020, according to data from the county health department. They made up the highest number of cases in the county from April to September 2020, when the health department reported cases were being driven mostly by workplace outbreaks. The population also tested positive at a rate over three times higher than non-Hispanics and were hospitalized at a higher rate, the data shows.

And in Morrow County, Hispanic residents have accounted for approximately 57% of the county’s total COVID-19 cases, according to data provided by county officials as of March 12.

Officials from both counties have pointed to workplace exposures in food processing and agricultural facilities as having contributed to the disproportionately high rates of infection, which echoes both state and national trends.

“Our farmworkers were disproportionately impacted by COVID,” Murdock said. “We had some very high numbers, and it was people who had no choice. If they want to support their families, they had to work. They have to be out in the fields and in the processing plants. And while efforts are made to try and protect them, it’s very difficult. So, consequently, they become very, very vulnerable.”

Just in time

The state’s approval comes just in time for spring planting and harvest, which brings an influx of agricultural workers to the region annually, officials from both counties said. In Umatilla County, harvest season brings with it more than 10,000 additional jobs, officials say. Morrow County also sees a surge.

“That’s exactly why we immediately raised our hand” when the state said counties could expand vaccinations,” Morrow County Commissioner Melissa Lindsay said. She added that the county’s essential workforce is one of the largest in the state and is predominantly comprised of Hispanic and Latino workers.

Lindsay said she hopes the new timeline will bring with it a surge of vaccinations as the county begins to see more and more people hesitant to get a shot.

Morrow County officials will be making further efforts to communicate and educate regional farmworkers about the importance of getting vaccinated as harvest season continues, Lindsay said.

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said he’s also concerned that the vaccine turnout among agricultural workers will be slim, since many employees cannot simply leave work to get a shot.

So, the county has contacted employers at agriculture and food processing facilities to bring the vaccines to them. Murdock said the health department has “talked to virtually all employers of both processing plants and farmers to try to figure out strategies for conducting vaccines where they are.”

The county has already held vaccine clinics at two food processing facilities in Weston, Fiumara said a week ago, and more were planned for later in the week.

“Our hope is that by reducing some barriers for these (food processing) and migrant workers,” he said, “they don’t have to necessarily leave work, go to our drive-thru on a Thursday or Friday, maybe sit for a half-hour in line, and then go back to work and potentially miss out on three or four hours of pay to get their shot when we can, in many cases, get to them and reduce that time.”

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