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New York Farmworkers, Food Processing Plant Employees Await Vaccine

New York dairy processors and farms hope their workers will soon have access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The New York Farm Bureau and Northeast Dairy Foods Association are among the groups advocating for farmworkers and employees at dairy processing plants to be included in the priority 1B group for the vaccine.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended certain classes of workers for each phase, agricultural and food workers were part of 1B. But when New York rolled out its own list of eligible employees, farm and food workers weren’t included.

Last month, 17 organizations sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking him to add agricultural and food workers to the 1B group. So far, there hasn’t been any action on that request. But the state has opened eligibility for the vaccine to others, including people with chronic health conditions.

Alex Walsh, associate vice president of regulatory affairs for Northeast Dairy Foods Association, said Monday that the explanation offered for why agricultural and food workers were left off the eligibility list was a lack of vaccine supply. That has been a challenge for the state, which relies on the federal government to determine its allocation each week. The supply has been increasing, but the demand is much higher.

Walsh told The Citizen that the state said once more supply is available, more groups will be eligible for the vaccine. But after people with chronic health conditions were added to the 1B group, agricultural and food workers are still wondering when they will be eligible.

“We’re still on the frontlines working every day making sure that food is on the shelves of grocery stores,” Walsh said. “We’re still not being included in any of these working groups.”

Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for New York Farm Bureau, said his group hopes that will change soon as vaccine supply increases. He mentioned that some farmers have anxiety because not only are they waiting for access to the vaccine, but they want to get their workers inoculated too.

Farms, like other worksites, have been affected by COVID-19. In Cayuga County, one of the first outbreaks of the virus involved farmworkers. The first COVID-related death in the county was a farmworker.

Once farmworkers are eligible to receive the vaccine, Ammerman said there are farms interested in holding vaccination clinics for employees and the surrounding areas.

Migrant health centers would also help facilitate the vaccination process. Through the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, there are vaccines available for migrant laborers. But, Ammerman noted, the state has to have farmworkers on the eligibility list.

There are other important factors to consider, according to Ammerman. How to facilitate the vaccinations in one question. But there’s also an educational component that’s important.

“It’s also making sure that our employees understand the value and the safety and the efficacy of getting vaccinated,” he said.

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