By Vicky Boyd
The number of COVID vaccination clinics held for food and agricultural workers in San Joaquin County continued to increase in March, thanks in part to a significant boost in vaccine shipments.
“The real key is simply doses – that’s the overriding factor in everything we’re doing,” said San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn. “The more we get, the faster we can get people to the end.”
The improved supply has allowed many ag-related companies and groups to conduct vaccination clinics targeting food and ag workers.
Nevertheless, San Joaquin County leaders, along with counterparts from many other counties, remain in discussions with the state about the role Blue Shield will play in vaccine distribution. In late January, Gov. Gavin Newsom awarded a no-bid $15 million contract to Blue Shield to take over vaccine distribution from the state Department of Health Services.
As part of that, counties were asked to sign contracts with Blue Shield. Only Kern County has done so, with most of the other counties objecting. Instead, they said they preferred a memorandum of understanding with the state that would allow them to retain much of their local authority.
“We’ve submitted a revised MOU that gives us a lot more latitude for public outreach and targeting areas,” Winn said. “I think part of the negotiations with the third-party administrator is we weren’t able to have the flexibility to really focus on those areas where we could prevent not only infections but also hospitalizations.”
He said San Joaquin County already had a program that identified communities at highest risk of COVID and where vaccinations should be targeted. In addition, the county had launched online vaccine sign-ups through the Office of Emergency Service’s SJReady (www.sjready.org) website as well as vaccine appointments by calling 211.
The county has since had to adopt the statewide MyTurn online vaccine appointment system. But OES notified the 30,000 people who had signed up through SJReady and were waiting for appointments of the change over.
Before Blue Shield took over vaccine distribution, Winn said the county had almost daily conversations with the state Department of Health Services. The addition of the third party created another level of bureaucracy, resulting in a loss of communication, he said.
Vaccine shipments increase
Despite the disagreement, vaccine shipments to the county have increased significantly to the current 10,000 to 17,000 per week from 900 to 2,500 per week four to six weeks ago. That number will likely increase further with the addition of shipments of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the end of March, according to the Office of Emergency Services, which is coordinating vaccine distribution within the county.
The county as well as private groups within the county continue to ramp up efforts to vaccinate food and agricultural workers. As of March 19, the county had clinics scheduled through May 21.
San Joaquin Farm Bureau First President Ken Vogel, a cherry and walnut grower near Linden, said he supports the ag community’s efforts to vaccinate workers who want it.
“I think it’s a great thing that ag is doing. I think it’s important because sometimes workers are in close proximity to other people, and it makes it hard to keep their distance. I want (the vaccine) for everybody,” he said.
In his other role as a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Education, Vogel joined with fellow board members to approve vaccines for all of the county’s 13,000 school personnel from custodians to teachers.
Winn said it was important to get as many agricultural workers vaccinated as possible before harvest starts.
“The farming community, if they don’t have workers, the crops don’t get harvested, and that’s it. There’s no second chance go do this in June or July,” he said. “I think the county staff has been really responsive to the criticality to get these workers vaccinated so they can do their job.”
Ag groups step up
Morada Produce in Stockton is one company that has embraced vaccinations. The grower-packer-shipper of cherries, peppers and onions held a vaccination clinic March 1 for 220 workers who then returned March 29 for their second dose of the Moderna vaccine, said human resources manager Silvia Lara. On March 15, Morada held another clinic, this time for 435 workers who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the company had another event planned for later in March.
The nice thing about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said, is it is a single dose and doesn’t require people to come back for a second one.
“We’re just trying to protect our workers the best we can,” Lara said.
Not all of the workers receiving vaccines worked directly for Morada, either. The company invited vendors and other companies with whom they deal to bring their workers. Employees of Unitec who maintain Morada’s optical sorters, for example, were able to participate as were those who work for farm labor contractors.
“We just felt we had a pretty central location for our partners, so we just wanted to offer it to them,” Lara said.
The grower-packer-shipper also had a large, open area in which to conduct the clinic. Morada worked closely with San Joaquin County to put it on. To avoid traffic jams, Lara said appointments were made, with 45 people scheduled for each 30-minute block.
If someone showed up early, they were still able to squeeze them in without much of a wait.
Like many other employers, Morada is not requiring its workers to be vaccinated but rather is encouraging them to do so, she said.
The Stockton operation was not the only one hosting vaccination clinics for food and ag workers – OG Packing of Stockton and A. Sambado & Son in Linden also held events recently.
Although not quite on the scale of Morada’s, the Lodi Winegrape Commission and Lodi District Grape Growers Association partnered with Community Medical Centers to host a vaccination clinic for about 110 farmworkers in mid-March.
“I’d been reaching out to various people to try to get something set up, because I feel the best way to reach out to workers is through their employers,” said Stuart Spencer, Lodi Winegrape Commission executive director.
LangeTwins Family Winery in Acampo volunteered to host the event, and he said its safety team helped pull it together.
“They’re very well organized,” Spencer said of LangeTwins’ team.
If demand remained strong, he said he would consider putting together a second event.
“The vineyards are kind of quiet right now,” Spencer said. “I know the packing situation is starting to get ready to gear up.”
Josh Harder visits ag vaccination site during National Ag Day
Against a backdrop of National Ag Day, San Joaquin County COVID front-line leaders toured Rep. Josh Harder around a vaccination site at the Cabral Agricultural Center in Stockton.
San Joaquin Farm Bureau Executive Director Bruce Blodgett said it is important for lawmakers to learn firsthand the successes as well as the challenges of vaccinating essential food and ag workers.
“It’s one thing to hear about it – it’s something entirely different to see it,” said Blodgett, who was on the tour. “It’s a lot better to see it, and it’s also important that Harder’s willing to do that.”
During the meeting and tour, Harder, D-Turlock, heard about the continuing inequity of vaccine shipments to not just San Joaquin County but to the other seven counties in the San Joaquin Valley as well.
Until the week of March 22, San Joaquin County – with a population of 782,000 – had been receiving about 10,000 doses per week, said Dr. Maggie Park, county health officer. San Mateo County, on the other hand has about the same number of residents, but “they’ve vaccinated more people than we’ve received in total vaccines.”
“At 10,000 per week, we’re never going to get through it,” she said. “It’s time to change the formula to give a higher rate to food and ag and more Johnson & Johnson vaccines.”
The need for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is particularly acute for farm workers, who may move from job to job and not come back for the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, she said.
Cherry season begins the third or fourth week of April, with a large influx of workers expected into the county, said San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican.
The county’s efforts may soon get a much-needed shot in the arm with the recently announced opening of a mass vaccination hub at the Stockton Arena in April, as well as one at California State University, Bakersfield. The two were chosen because surrounding communities have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the state and some of the lowest vaccination rates.
A consortium, led by Kaiser Permanente, is involved with running the sites. Also involved are Adventist Health, Dignity Health, the California Medical Association, the California Primary Care Association, Futuro Health and the American Red Cross.
Each vaccination hub has the capacity to administer up to 5,400 doses per day, depending on vaccine supplies, and will offer vaccinations by appointment only seven days per week.
The county has also established static vaccination clinics at the Grape Festival Grounds in Lodi, the Ag Center in Stockton and Delta College, said Christopher Miller, senior emergency planner with the county Office of Emergency Services.
In addition, it has pop-up clinics around the county as well as targeted clinics, such as those held at packinghouses.
Two contractors administer the vaccines — San Joaquin County Clinics and HRSupport. SJC Clinics is a Federal Qualified Health Clinic and cannot turn away anyone. HRSupport, on the other hand, bills insurance companies and is not allowed to vaccinate non-citizens, Miller said.
With some farm workers in the country illegally, Blodgett said SJC Clinics is going to have to become more involved with efforts targeting agriculture.
Park also said the county is being penalized because fewer people are seeking COVID tests. The state bases its color-coded reopening plan partly on the number of tests per 100,000 residents administered each week.
“We’re having to shut down our testing sites, because there’s no demand for testing unless people are sick,” she said.
As Harder listened, asked questions and took notes, he told the group, “We need to be ruthless to get rid of all of those bottlenecks.”