Groups work to overcome barriers to COVID-19 vaccine for NC's farmworkers

As North Carolina increases COVID-19 vaccine doses and providers, barriers to access still exist for some of the state's most vulnerable populations.

Federal and state leaders tout that most individuals have access to a COVID-19 vaccine within five miles of their home, but in rural North Carolina, where thousands of farmworkers live, this isn't the case.

"I would love to see that happen but unfortunately, I think I have to remain more realistic for things we see on the ground, and we don't see those efforts yet and so far into the pandemic, why haven't we seen them yet?" questioned Yusenia Cuello, the executive director of NC Field.

Cuello's organization has evolved during the past year to provide essential services during the pandemic to farmworkers. NC Field offered testing events three times a week and is organizing vaccination events.

"There was definitely a need for this, honestly, there was such a need just because there wasn't anything going on," Cuello explained.

Adding vaccination providers in rural counties won't reduce all barriers farmworkers face. Cuello explained that many clinics are put on during the day when people are working. The workers also often lack access to transportation and interpreters.

NC Field is one of the groups working to break down those barriers. Their event at a local church in Duplin County vaccinated close to 300 people this month.

"There is a lot of nervousness, a lot of anxiety with the patients, so us getting out there and building that relationship just helps them out and makes it a more positive for them," said Nichole Cortez, a field worker in North Carolina.

Elizabeth Freeman, manager of the NCDHHS' Farmworker Health Program, estimated that 46,000 people work in fields across the state during peak season.

Close to 11,000 farmworkers received a COVID-19 vaccination in the past two months and Freeman said demand remains high.

"Every week, we're having new workers arrive and so that demand has stayed constant. In fact, you know, May is one of the busiest months of arrivals of workers so I would say the demand has stayed high and we expect it to stay high through June, July, and then somewhat taper off as the fewer workers are entering the state," Freeman said.

Freeman said these workers are at an increased risk because they often reside in congregate living settings and are being transported together to reach North Carolina. She said because of the risks, it's important this population is targeted.

"We are an agricultural state, we rely heavily on farmworkers to cultivate and harvest our crops," Freeman said. "If people are sick, or if there's an outbreak, then that is going to have, in addition to affecting their health and their well-being, that's going to have an impact on our food supply and on our economy."

NCDHHS has around 100 farmworker vaccine teams that are reaching out to farms across the state to gauge interest in vaccination and provide resources.

"We are seeing a 94% acceptance rate among farmworkers. So we were just thrilled by that. But we also acknowledge that there is some hesitancy, there are some concerns, and that's where I think the health education and the relationships and trust has come in," Freeman said.

Both Freeman and Cuello said they will continue their outreach to farmworkers by building upon partnerships, going into communities and listening to the needs and concerns of workers.
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