How Vermont Has Vaccinated Its Farm Workers
Outside a mobile home in Franklin County, large white chickens patrol the yard. Green fields roll out in every direction. Big sky stretches overhead. This is where several dairy workers live.
Among them is Eva. We’re using first names to protect worker identity and avoid employment or legal repercussions.
Eva is 30, and has worked at this large dairy farm for 12 years. She has a daughter in the 6th grade, and when Eva isn’t on her 12-hour shift or getting ready for the next day, they play.
Elean, 21, has been at this farm for about two years. He currently works the night shift, solo, in the barn.
“So I work all night, and I'm the one that moves the cow,” he said.
During the day, Elean says he tries to sleep and get a little bit of exercise — he lifts weights.
Like many farm workers, neither Eva or Elean have a lot of free time, which is one barrier for both COVID vaccination efforts and health access in general.
“There's a lot of challenges around access to transportation, access to language supports, depending on whether we're working with the Jamaican population or working with the Latino farm worker population,” said Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, the migrant health coordinator with University of Vermont Extension. “Compounded by the fact that we are dealing with a new virus and new vaccines and hesitancy that come along with that.”
Despite those challenges, community health partners here in Vermont have vaccinated more than 1,500 farm workers. Wolcott-MacCausland says the inoculation rate among these communities mirrors the state's overall high vaccination, which is nearing 90%.
The pandemic, however, stretches on, driven by the more-contagious delta variant. While vaccinations are highly effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the virus remains highly prevalent.
And the need for improved health care for farm workers continues.
A COVID vaccine campaign
To help get farm workers immunized, Wolcott-MacCausland says UVM Extension patched together grants to hire bilingual nurses and other help. They recently received more than $200,000 for an education campaign, in both Spanish and English, about the benefits of adult inoculations.
This past year, UVM Extension coordinated vaccinations in 13 of Vermont’s 14 counties, partnering with local health services and using a combination of on-farm clinics, state-sponsored clinics, BIPOC clinics and pharmacy appointments. They reached about 900 people.
“So that's a mix of dairy workers, ground-crops-now-orchard workers, farm owners, local workers,” Wolcott-MacCausland said.
Open Door Clinic oversaw efforts in Addison County. They say more than 600 workers there received at least one shot for COVID-19.
Eva and Elean both participated in an on-farm immunization clinic this spring. Elean says he received both language and technology help for his second appointment, which was at a pharmacy.
Now that the delta variant is spreading, Wolcott-MacCausland says migrant health providers are returning to public health messaging, hoping to prevent any new cases in farm worker housing. In some cases, living quarters can be cramped, with multiple adults sharing rooms.
“Once somebody has COVID, within, you know, a group living situation, it's a really challenging scenario,” Wolcott-MacCausland said.
Over 120 workers have been infected with COVID-19 since January, when UVM Extension and Open Door Clinic began collecting data. One person was hospitalized.
Before that, the only other known positive coronavirus cases occurred last October at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, where 27 H-2A workers were infected shortly after they arrived from Jamaica.
Staying safe on the farm
Back at the Franklin County farm, no one appears to have gotten sick. But people here are still being careful. The day we meet up, everyone is wearing masks, even outside.
Elean says they limit their outings to the essentials: “You know, we do go out to the store sometimes, but then we just come right back here.”
And Eva says they’re not seeing friends off the farm: “Yeah, we're not really interacting with other people.”
The pandemic has also disrupted school routines for Eva’s daughter, who has to deal with unreliable internet at home.
“So before the pandemic, sometimes like if we had a cold or something like that, oftentimes we just go to work, but now with the pandemic, we're not sure, do we go to work?”
Both workers say one of their biggest concerns now is not knowing what to do if and when someone does get sick.
“So before the pandemic, sometimes like if we had a cold or something like that, oftentimes we just go to work, but now with the pandemic, we're not sure, do we go to work?” Eva said.
Elean says it would be helpful to have a conversation with their boss.
After our visit, Wolcott-MacCausland followed up with the farmer. He said he planned to remind workers at their next meeting they have a week of paid sick time each year, which employers are required to provide under state law.
More of that on-the-ground, community connection is what Wolcott-MacCausland says is needed to serve the health care needs of farm workers, both during the pandemic and beyond.