Eva Garcia’s nerves were frayed after she heard false rumours that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous. But the 35-year-old California farmworker, who had tested positive for and recovered from the virus herself earlier this year, decided that getting the vaccine was the right thing to do.
The jab, she reasoned, would protect her, her husband and their children. Garcia, who is undocumented and has no access to healthcare in the United States, received a Moderna shot on March 2 at a mobile clinic set up at the farm where she harvests parsley.
“I had COVID, I survived it, and I’m a lot happier knowing I’m protected,” she told Al Jazeera over the phone through a translator.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that states prioritise agricultural workers in phase one of their vaccination campaigns. California, the top agricultural producing state in the country, did just that – making Garcia one of the first farmworkers in the US to be inoculated.
In late February, Governor Gavin Newsom visited Fresno in the Central Valley, one of the state’s top agricultural centres, to announce new mobile clinics and outreach for farmworkers.
“These are the folks that never took a day off, these are the folks that never complained, these are the folks that wake up every single day and [are] there for the rest of us so we can go about our lives,” Newsom said, as reported by The Associated Press news agency.
“It’s not just Californians who benefit, it’s the folks all across this country and around the world.”
When COVID-19 spread to North America, agricultural workers were one of the hardest-hit groups.
As of February 23, more than 387 farms and production facilities in the US have had confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to a report from Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of workers’ groups. In these workplaces, at least 12,857 farmworkers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 43 have died.
But Jayson Lusk, professor and head of the department of agriculture at Purdue University, told Al Jazeera the true number of cases is likely much higher: He estimates there have been 543,000 cases among farmworkers in the last year, and 9,000 workers have died.
Lusk’s data shows Texas and California had the most cases due to their high populations of farmworkers. The Center for Farmworker Families advocacy group estimates California is home to 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers, about 75 percent of whom are undocumented.
Washington state followed California’s example this week, opening up eligibility to agricultural workers. But other states are neglecting this high-risk population, even as the virus continues to spread in counties with high concentrations of agricultural workers. The CDC recommendations are non-binding, leaving states to craft their own rules.
Texas has excluded farm workers from its phase one campaign. Florida, too, has a high case count among farmworkers, but requires proof of residency for vaccination, denying access to undocumented people. New York, where 3,000 farmworkers tested positive, prioritised other food service workers but left out agricultural workers.
Agricultural organisations in New York and state officials have sent letters to Governor Andrew Cuomo asking for farmworkers to be prioritised but did not receive a response, according to the news website Documented NY.
Florida’s agricultural minister has criticised Governor Ron DeSantis for not including undocumented workers in inoculation efforts, and Texas Democrats have called on Republican Governor Greg Abbott to include farmworkers, but the rules remain the same.
Beyond the human effect of COVID-19, agricultural workers are vital to the security of the global food supply, Lusk told Al Jazeera. “Making sure we have the people available to plant and harvest crops will make sure our grocery stores aren’t empty or our food prices don’t rise,” he said.