by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

Ventura County launched a pilot program last week aimed at administering the coronavirus vaccine to farmworkers and ironing out logistics involved with vaccination administration in the fields. 

A farmworker receives the coronavirus vaccine on Feb. 11. Photo submitted, County of Ventura.

On Feb. 11, 36 farm workers were vaccinated at two avocado orchards. Employees of Kimball Avocados in Santa Paula and Rancho Simpatica in Fillmore are the first to get vaccinated through the county program. 

“Three maybe four scheduled for this week,” said Rigoberto Vargas, director of Ventura County Public Health, adding that on Friday the program would hold a press conference at one of the farms where the vaccinations would be taking place. It’s being done on a “very limited basis. I don’t see us doing more than four or five sites in the next few weeks until we get enough vaccine.”

Vargas said the county intends to vaccinate about 200 farmworkers each week and currently growers are selected based on the number of workers they have. This week program staff will visit growers with about 75 to 100 employees. 

Vaccine supply is still very limited in the county, with available appointments full. Online update: The county did report an increase in the allotment of doses it would receive and opened up 6,000 appointments for the week on Tuesday, Feb. 16. 

Vargas said that “given the very low amount [of vaccines] that there is overall,” he doesn’t expect an expansion of the program for the time being.  

VACCINE UPDATE | Now open to 65 and older Ventura County has reported that all vaccine appointments are full through the end of February. More than 22,000 first-dose appointments were filled last week and more than 43,000 for the month. Supply is limited. As vaccines become available more appointments will open towards the end of February/early March.  Online vaccine registration: www.venturacountyrecovers.org/vaccine-information/portal/ County vaccine phone line: 805-477-7161

A goal of the program is field testing vaccine administration in various settings at the farms and with different growers. Vargas said the county is looking at different processes that might be needed at citrus orchards or berry houses. 

“We’ve made a commitment to be ready when the next tier of essential workers” is opened up for vaccinations, said Vargas. 

That tier will  include teachers, grocery and restaurant workers. Logistics getting ironed out in the fields will help streamline vaccine administration at other types of work sites as well. Logistics include set up, registration and what can be done ahead of time versus the day of onsite. For example, special cooler containers are used to transport and keep the vaccines cold when taken into the fields. 

Sites visited during the pilot program are selected from a list compiled by an agricultural advisory workgroup. The group meets every Friday and  includes the Agricultural Commissioner, Farmworker Resources Program (FRP) and community advocates. 

“It’s really based on size” of the employee list, Vargas explained, and whether “they can host us this week.” While the list is currently full, growers wanting to be added to the pilot program can contact the FRP. 

According to state data, 55% of coronavirus cases in Ventura County are taking place in the Latinx community, which is suffering 46% of the deaths. Latinx residents make up about 43% of the county’s population. 

According to House Farm Workers, a Santa Paula-based organization, there are about 42,000 farmworkers employed in Ventura County. Many live in crowded apartment settings that are conducive to the spread of the virus. 

A Feb. 4 statement issued by the California Strawberry Commission said the organization is “in communication with all Central Coast counties and encouraging them to allocate at least some vaccines for farm workers. We are also in communication with Western Growers and United Ag Benefits Trust health insurance programs to seek allocations directly from the state.”

In comparison, Santa Cruz County also launched a farmworker vaccination program last week that saw 1,000 people vaccinated in the first week at a clinic coordinated by Dignity Health Dominican Hospital, the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and the California Strawberry Commission. Santa Cruz County has a total population of 273,213 and agricultural revenue of just over $600,000 compared with Ventura County’s 846,006 people and $2 billion in ag revenue. 

Ventura County Farmworker Resource Program: www.ventura.org/human-services-agency/farmworker-resources

House Farm Workers: housefarmworkers.org

COVID resources from the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner: https://www.ventura.org/agricultural-commissioner/resources/