All In for Vaccinations Monterey County is ready, willing and able to get farmworkers healthy

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By Joe Livernois

If the pandemic has taught residents of Monterey County anything, it’s that we’re all in this together.

Representatives from the Monterey Peninsula’s hotel and restaurant industry this week lobbied the county’s Board of Supervisors to beg, borrow or steal enough COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate as many Salinas Valley farmworkers as quickly as possible.

“We urge you to plan to target agricultural and food workers (in) ZIP codes that have the highest … infection rates,” Janine Chicourrat, president of the Monterey County Hospitality Association, told supervisors on Tuesday. “We owe it to the hardest-working people to do our very best to protect them, their families and our greater community.”

Expressions of concern about the well-being of workers in a whole different industry are not something county residents are accustomed to hearing.

“We need to take control of this pandemic today for the good of hospitality’s workforce, agriculture’s workforce and our residents who rely on the revenues generated by hospitality,” said Rick Aldinger, government affairs committee chairman of the hospitality association and a Big Sur restaurant owner. “We have an opportunity to do just that by having a robust plan in place to support our partners in agriculture. (Farmworkers) need to feel safe to receive vaccinations at the earliest possible opportunity,”

Gov. Gavin Newsom loosened restrictions on restaurants statewide on Monday, citing state Health Department projections that fewer people will be hospitalized and will test positive for the virus in the coming weeks. But health officials and business leaders in Monterey County fear that new cases will flood the Salinas Valley during the next several weeks when migrant farmworkers start showing up from Yuma and the Imperial Valley to start harvesting crops that have already been planted in the Salad Bowl of the World.

As the hospitality industry has learned the hard way, the entire county is impacted when the pandemic is concentrated in pockets of the community. The infections and deaths on the Monterey Peninsula side of the so-called Lettuce Curtain have been much lower than Salinas during the pandemic, but the draconian closure orders are applied to residents and businesses across the entire county when the pandemic numbers spike.

Some Peninsula business owners have groused from the start about the fairness of the across-the-board shut-down orders, but hospitality organizations on the Peninsula have now concentrated their energies into pushing the county to care for farmworkers.

“We feel we have done our part and then some to take precautions against this virus,” said Marietta Bain, an owner of Fandango Restaurant in Pacific Grove. “We want to know what the county will require for migrant workers who so desperately need to get tested before beginning their seasonal work here. We need to know what the priority plan is to get these workers tested and vaccinated.”

It’s a message Monterey County officials take to heart. County leaders are griping about the slow delivery of the vaccine to the region, and are discussing work-arounds to the governor’s phased delivery of inoculations. At present, the vaccine is only available to health care workers and residents 75 years of age and older. The next couple of phases will deliver vaccines to other population groups, but farmworkers are not among them.

Officials in Monterey County are frustrated because they believe they have systems in place to deliver tens of thousands of inoculations each week, if only they had the vaccines.

Gerry Malais, the county’s director of emergency operations, said the county has secured 32 vaccination sites and 64 “medically qualified volunteers” to administer the shots. Under its best-case scenario, up to 7,600 residents could be vaccinated each day, he said. “Our limitations at this point are strictly the amount of vaccine we can acquire,” Malais said.

There may be no organization better positioned to get those vaccines to farmworkers than Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas. The clinic was established more than 40 years ago specifically to provide low-cost health care in the Salinas Valley, and its offices now provide basic care to more than 50,000 residents in offices from Pajaro to King City.

Its chief medical officer, Dr. Max Cuevas, recently participated in a study conducted by UC Berkeley that detailed the toll of the pandemic on the mental health and the domestic environment of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley. And Cuevas testified on Tuesday that his clinics are ready, willing and able to administer wide-scale vaccinations when the vaccine becomes available.

Earlier during the pandemic, Clinica de Salud was commissioned by the county to vaccinate firefighters. He said his clinics were organized to get people through quickly. “I have some of the sites that were doing about 132 vaccines in the course of about three hours,” he said. With that capability and with a concerted effort that would set up large-scale clinics in farming headquarters, Cuevas told supervisors that his organization could immunize a substantial number of the 90,000 farmworkers working in the county relatively quickly.

“We’re prepared to launch this thing fairly quickly,” Cuevas said. “I know the grower community is hoping that it’d be sooner than later. I think they’ve made their facilities available, and we can then set it up.”

Cuevas said the UC Berkeley study he worked on indicated that a substantial number of farmworkers — like some of the local firefighters he never saw — are suspicious of the vaccination effort and aren’t likely to participate. However, he believes enough farmworkers can be inoculated to meet herd immunity standards. If and when the vaccine shows up.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Anna Caballero said she’s been working with retail associations in the state to develop a pilot program in Monterey County in which chain pharmacies would use their vaccine allotment to distribute to low-income residents of the Salinas Valley.

Caballero said she is frustrated that farmworkers were designated as essential workers from the start of the pandemic but “there was no information that was provided to them in a culturally sensitive way that told them what the expectations were and what they should do to keep themselves safe. So there was a lot of confusion really early on in the pandemic and it was a constant source of irritation.”

The situation has improved somewhat, especially in Monterey and Fresno counties, with the public outreach programs conducted by agricultural organizations and hospitals, Caballero said. But her senatorial district covers six counties, including the Salinas Valley side of Monterey County, and some of those counties don’t seem to be as diligent in keeping its farmworker communities healthy.

She says she continues to push the governor and colleagues in Sacramento to approve a replacement wage program that would pay sick farmworkers to stay home. “If you’re a minimum wage worker and you’re sick and you tell them they have to stay home for two weeks, the bottom line and the cultural context is they came here to work,” Caballero said. “They’ve got a family and responsibilities, and if they’re not feeling good they’re going to keep coming to work.”

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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