Faced With Scarcity, California’s Essential Workers Fall Through the Cracks in COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

Image from the LA Times

By Dorrin Akbari

LOS ANGELES — Millions of workers in frontline industries are being left behind as California grapples with limited and unpredictable COVID-19 vaccine supply and distribution, putting essential workers at continued risk of exposure despite their prioritized status.

California’s frontline workforce consists of approximately 4.7 million individuals (25% of all workers) working in healthcare, agriculture, public transit, garment manufacturing, and other industries. They perform services in close proximity with customers and colleagues and are thus at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“Millions of working Californians, most of them people of color, have no choice but to leave their homes and work each day, exposing themselves, their families, and their communities to COVID-19 and its devastation,” said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU California, in a statement following the announcement of California’s new vaccine distribution plan in late January. 

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California, which has 700,000 members, is one of many organizations that have criticized Governor Gavin Newsom’s “series of improvements to the state’s vaccination plan.” 

The new measures, designed to streamline the distribution of coronavirus vaccines by moving to an age-based eligibility system, are raising concerns that some essential workers will have to wait longer to be vaccinated.

California has formally prioritized some frontline workers for vaccination. The current vaccination Phase 1B aims to vaccinate an estimated 12 million people as supplies allow. Eligible individuals under this category include people 65 and older, essential workers in education and childcare, and workers in food and agriculture. In Los Angeles County, these groups of essential workers will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine beginning March 1. 

Unfortunately, a limited and unpredictable supply of vaccines has served as a massive hurdle in the state’s initial distribution plans—muddying efforts to vaccinate essential workers at restaurants, farms, and grocery stores. Over the weekend, Los Angeles was forced to temporarily shut down five vaccination sites due to a shortage of vaccine doses. 

“It’s a feeding frenzy. The demand [for COVID vaccines] is so great, and the supply is relatively low. And farmworkers are at the very bottom of the totem pole. They are perceived as small fr[ies],” remarked Dr. Walter Newman, who has given flu vaccines to California farmworkers for two decades. 

Transportation and logistics workers, previously set to receive vaccines under the second tier of Phase 1B, will not be eligible for early vaccination as California pursues its age-based strategy. Despite their continued work in high-exposure risk conditions, other frontline workers, such as those in the garment and construction industries, have yet to be identified in priority groups.

For months, California leaders have said that equity—ensuring that members of disproportionately hurt communities are prioritized—would be a top concern during vaccine rollouts. However, demographic data provided by the state suggests that those efforts haven’t been fruitful, particularly for the Latino population. 

COVID-19 has ripped through California’s Latino communities, which account for 60% of cases statewide despite making up 39% of the state’s population. The death rate for Latinos from COVID-19 is 21% higher than statewide. 

Despite this data, just 16% of people who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine and whose ethnicity was reported were Latino. Only 13% were Asian American, and an even more miniscule number, 2.9%, were Black. 

Governor Gavin Newsom said last week that California will continue refining its vaccine distribution plans “to make sure that we have equity front and center.” Some experts argue the shift to age-based prioritization is more efficient than parsing the various groups of essential workers. Dr. David Eisenman, director of UCLA’s Center for Public Health and Disasters, said it was a necessary step in quickly reducing the strain on hospitals. 

Last Wednesday, Newsom visited a farmworker vaccination site at SeaView Packing, a company in Coachella that supplies and packs Medjool dates and other specialty fruits. While there, he praised Riverside County for being the first in California to launch clinics specifically for farmworkers, beginning in mid-January. 

“You’ve got to meet people where they are, and that’s exactly what folks are doing here on the ground, he said at the launch of the site’s three-day vaccination drive. “I’m just here with that respect, that recognition and that understanding that we need to replicate that program all up and down the state of California.” 

“Frankly, we haven’t done enough. We have to own that. We have to recognize we haven’t delivered on equity as we should,” Newsom admitted. 

Targeted efforts in some parts of California have led to the successful vaccination of a few thousand farm and food workers. Long Beach’s Health Department reported that just over 1,000 of its roughly 2,500 food sector workers have been vaccinated since the city opened vaccines to them on Jan. 19.  Pilot programs and vaccination clinics in Riverside, Santa Cruz, Ventura, and Fresno counties have also targeted agriculture workers. 

Despite these efforts, the California Department of Public Health reports that healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities, and people aged 65 and over make up the largest portion of recipients of an initial vaccine dose. Beginning March 15, the state will expand vaccine access to approximately 4 million to 6 million individuals with disabilities or severe underlying health conditions.

A UCSF study examining occupational differences in deaths from COVID-19 found that certain occupational sectors—including food and agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing—were associated with high excess mortality during the pandemic, particularly among racial groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Food and agriculture workers were found to have a 39% increase in mortality, the highest among the groups studied. Latino food and agriculture workers were found to have a 59% increase in mortality.

One of the co-authors of the study, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, told the LA Times about her concerns that the current pace of California’s vaccine rollout would leave high-risk workers behind: “We need to make sure we don’t wait to get through every single 65-year-old before moving on to people working in jobs that place them at higher risk.”

“It’s not about pitting those 65 and older over farmworkers,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation. “But why say they’re in the same priority tier if they’re not truly in the same priority tier?”

The Central Neighborhood Health Foundation, a network of federally qualified health centers serving LA County and the Inland Empire, reserved half of the 100 Moderna vaccine doses it received from Riverside County last week for farmworkers in the Coachella Valley. The organization was nonetheless forced to turn individuals away during its vaccine drive due to limited supplies. 

Chief Operating Officer Eleanor Perez said the vaccine supply is currently too inconsistent to serve the foundation’s 25,000 patients, most of whom are low-income and many of whom are uninsured. Their case is not unique.  

The rocky rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is continuing in Los Angeles, as severe winter weather has delayed delivery of vaccine doses and forced vaccination sites to postpone appointments amid limited supplies. About 12,500 people will have their appointments delayed after the hold up of two large vaccine shipments: 26,000 doses, previously set to arrive Tuesday, remain in Kentucky, and another 37,000 doses, set to be used next week, remain in Tennessee. 

Other hurdles to vaccine distribution include language and digital barriers. When asked what the state has failed to address in its approach with farmworkers during the pandemic, Dr. Newman responded: “Their ability to get a vaccine. Much like the elder population, where the state and others went in and did vaccines on-site, farmworkers are very similar. They don’t have computer access, by and large. They can’t take a whole day off work to stand in line for a vaccine. And then there’s the educational component. Is it safe?”

The United Farm Workers Foundation currently delivers public service announcements on social media and through its partnered radio station on the importance of getting vaccinated. In a survey of more than 10,000 agriculture workers conducted by the foundation, approximately 96% of respondents said they felt neutral, agreeable, or very agreeable to getting the vaccine as soon as it’s made available to them.

“Whether visiting homes to save neglected and abused children, securing and cleaning buildings, helping house the homeless, staffing our state’s prisons, or helping people with disabilities and the elderly in the airport, essential workers continue to keep critical services operating every day, knowing that they are putting their own lives at risk,” said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU California.

“California labeled these workers essential when the state wanted their service through the pandemic; if they are removed from the priority list for vaccination, the state is now saying they are expendable,” said Schoonover.

Dorrin Akbari graduated from UC Berkeley in 2019 with a B.A. in Legal Studies and a minor in Persian. She is from San Jose, CA.

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