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Community-Based Efforts Key to Providing COVID-19 Vaccinations to California’s 400,000 Farmworkers

For more than a year, through all the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s more than 400,000 farmworkers never stopped showing up for work. They’ve continued picking and packing and processing day after day to make sure Californians have enough food to eat.

This despite the fact that like other essential workers, they are at much higher risk for contracting the virus. They labor in rural settings with limited healthcare facilities and providers. Many receive no health benefits from their employers to take advantage of what limited care does exist near them. Because of the high cost of living and their comparatively low earnings, many farmworkers live together in multigenerational homes, creating a ripe breeding ground for the virus to spread.

Farmworkers are unquestionably one of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Bringing the vaccine to the community

Dignity Health has been a pioneer in leading community-based efforts to vaccinate California’s farmworkers. The system recognizes that the best way to get these essential workers their shots and reduce their risk of contracting the virus is to go to the fields.

Herman Varela, community health educator at Dignity Health’s Woodland Memorial Hospital, is a former farmworker who now dedicates his career to protecting the health of this population. “They are essential,” said Varela. “Whereas before, a lot of times, we don’t even pay attention to them. But now, they are essential. They are out there and are exposed to this.”

Varela and others at Woodland Memorial partnered with Yolo County and Durst Organic Growers to offer multiple rounds of free on-site COVID-19 tests to local farmworkers. The hospital and county partnered again, starting in February, to deliver first-round doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to area farmworkers.

And Woodland Memorial is not the only hospital in the system actively working to protect this high-risk group. Dignity Health’s Dominican Hospital, which serves Santa Cruz County and the Monterey Bay region, partnered with the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau’s COVID-19 task force and the California Strawberry Commission to host a two-day vaccination clinic for farmworkers in that area. This event also occurred in February.

For decades, Dignity Health has advocated for the health and equity of every Californian, including those that come to us from other countries. This pandemic has highlighted gross inequities among our communities, particularly around access to quality health care. It’s our duty and privilege to fill these gaps and deliver much-needed care.