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Bringing The Vaccine To High-Risk Farmworkers In Ventura County

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Regina Francisca Isidro (center) speaks to a nurse before receiving a coronavirus vaccine shot at the United Farm Workers Foundation clinic in Oxnard on March 7. A translator (left) helps. (Sharon McNary/LAist)
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California's more than 200,000 farmworkers are now eligible to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. But getting the vaccine to these essential workers can be difficult, given their long work weeks and distance from major vaccine clinics.

To speed things up, the United Farm Workers Foundation teamed up this past Sunday with the Ventura County Health Department to give 500 field hands their first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

The need to keep things outdoors and socially distanced meant this particular vaccine clinic would take place in the alley behind the UFW Foundation's office in old downtown Oxnard.

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In line waiting for her shot was Regina Francisca Isidro, 52. She laughed nervously as she waited, choosing first her left arm for the vaccine, then changing to her right.

Isidro came to the U.S. from Mexico on a temporary worker visa. She had just finished a two-week quarantine after arriving, and would soon be harvesting celery, strawberries and raspberries.

She got her shot, to the applause of the nurse, a translator and a volunteer who was shepherding her through the various stations of the clinic. Now that she's vaccinated, the odds are good she won't get COVID-19.

But many of the farmworkers at the clinic had already been infected.

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Farmworkers line up for a coronavirus vaccine. (Sharon McNary/LAist)
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'IT JUST ELEVATES THE RISK'

Farmworkers in this area often live in crowded houses and apartments, carpool to the fields and work elbow-to-elbow in the strawberry rows, said the UFW's Roman Pinal.

"It just elevates the risk for farmworkers," he said.

Pinal pointed out that infections and coronavirus deaths in Ventura County have been concentrated in farmworker communities.

"If you add up some of the farmworker zip codes -- 93030, that's Colonia, where Cesar Chavez Elementary school is and where Cesar Chavez lived, and a couple other zip codes, that's probably half the infections for the whole county," he said.

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Oxnard accounts for about 40% of the county's COVID-19 infections, said Rigoberto Vargas, director of the Ventura County Public Health Department.

Those who got their first dose of vaccine at the clinic left with a card showing their appointment for a second shot, as well as a gift bag from the UFW Foundation containing a box of face masks, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a few cans of food.

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Abel Aragon Perez, after receiving his vaccine at the clinic co-sponsored by the UFW Foundation and Ventura County. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

'I HAVE TO THINK ABOUT MY KIDS'

Abel Aragón Perez has worked the fields in Salinas and Oxnard for 30 years. He learned he was positive for COVID-19 right after Christmas. Suffering headaches and body aches, for two weeks he tried his best to stay away from his wife, his 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, although they all live together. He wore double face masks and gloves and carefully cleaned the bathroom.

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"As a father, I have to think about my kids, and keep from infecting my family," he said.

Aragón Perez couldn't even kiss them good night. His symptoms eased up after a few weeks.

One of the difficulties his family has faced during the pandemic has been having kids at home learning online, and Aragón Perez says he's not really good at using computers. But he didn't have to go online to get his vaccine appointment.

The UFW texted messages to farmworkers -- most have phones and are comfortable with text messaging apps.

MORE OUTREACH WORKERS

Last week, Aragón Perez got a text asking if he wanted the vaccine. He texted back that he would, and the UFW gave him the time and place to show up.

On Sunday, he got his shot. Having already suffered through a bout of COVID-19, he wasn't worried about the side effects from a vaccine to keep him from getting it again.

Aragón Perez is the first in his family to get the vaccine. His wife works at an onion packing plant, and she's still waiting to get an appointment. Many farmworkers are in the fields six days a week, taking only Sundays off, so it can be even more difficult to book a shot. Some clinics shut down on Sundays.

The 500 farmworkers who received the vaccine on Sunday represent a tiny fraction of the field laborers who need protection from the coronavirus. Advocates like the UFW want to see more outreach to workers from health officials, and from the growers and labor contractors who hire them.

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Samantha Hernandez, a high school student from Bakersfield, volunteers handing out gift bags containing boxes of face masks (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Ventura County plans to add Sunday vaccine clinics, mobile vaccine teams and employer-based clinics as well as volunteers to help farmworkers sign up for shots.

To his fellow field workers, Aragón Perez says, if you have access to the vaccine, get the shot as soon as you can.

"It's good to be protected," he said.