Florida’s agriculture commissioner asked the governor to open COVID-19 vaccinations to all farmworkers, noting they are “critical to producing safe, secure” food while being exposed to higher health risks during the pandemic.
“These frontline workers are critical to producing the safe, secure domestic food supply on which we rely,” wrote Commissioner Nikki Fried in a Wednesday letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Yet according to studies, farmworkers face one of the highest increased risks of death from COVID-19 with Hispanic farmworkers facing a 59% higher risk.”
She also wants priority for others in the "agricultural and food production industries."
A University of California, San Francisco study that has not yet been peer-reviewed found food and agriculture workers are at the highest risk of mortality during the pandemic with Latino food and agriculture workers facing a 59% increase.
DeSantis has not announced where the state's more than 100,000 farmworkers fall in line for the vaccine despite calls in recent months from Fried and advocates to prioritize farmworkers who face conditions that make them vulnerable to infection.
Agricultural communities in Florida were hard-hit during a surge in infections this past summer. A doctor volunteering in Immokalee noted a more than 50% infection rate.
The Guatemalan Maya Center, a Lake Worth nonprofit serving farmworkers, pointed to a 30% infection rate. The center included that figure in its January letter to the governor asking him to prioritize farmworkers “independent of their immigration status” for vaccines and to improve their access to health care and COVID-19 testing.
“In Palm Beach County alone, the Guatemalan Maya Center consistently saw a 30% infection rate among the 600 farmworkers and families that would regularly test on a Saturday night," the letter said. "This high COVID-19 infection rate was partly due to unequal access to healthcare among these essential workers, especially since many live in rural areas, and in part a result of performing hazardous essential work that few are willing to do and which cannot be performed remotely.”
A spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Maya Center said they had not received a response from the governor. Nineteen other groups collaborated on and signed the letter including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Redlands Christian Migrants Association and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Father Frank O’Loughlin, the Maya center’s executive director and founder, would like to see the state's agricultural companies advocate for their workers to receive priority. He hopes Fried’s letter will push them to do so.
“Nobody in that level of Florida ever responds unless you, first of all, get the agricultural industry directing the thing,” he said. “The industry gets in; the workers get in.”
California farmworkers began receiving the vaccine early this year. Other states have given farmworkers early vaccine access, as was recommended by a federal panel. Michigan announced plans to start vaccinating food and agricultural workers this week, citing their role in keeping “the state’s food supply chain moving.”
Fried: All teachers, childcare workers need COVID vaccine
In her Wednesday letter, Fried, a Democrat, also asked the Republican governor to make vaccines available to teachers, school staff and childcare workers of all ages.
This week, DeSantis expanded vaccine access to include teachers, police and firefighters age 50 and older. Prior to that, only residents age 65 and older, healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff were given priority.
Fried has criticized the state’s vaccine rollout on other levels.
On Monday, she called for a congressional investigation of “alleged political favoritism and potential corruption in COVID-19 vaccine distribution under the Governor” said a press release from her office.
The governor’s office has not answered questions sent in early February from USA TODAY Network Florida as to whether a vaccination or COVID-19 prevention plan for farmworkers exists on a statewide level.
Read full story on Naples Daily News here.