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Rep. Ruiz: Vaccinating Food And Farm Workers Requires An 'Active, Concerted Effort'

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, says expanding vaccination priority groups to food and agricultural workers is just the first step in a big challenge to inoculate the country's hardest-hit communities.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, says expanding vaccination priority groups to food and agricultural workers is just the first step in a big challenge to inoculate the country's hardest-hit communities.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is calling on governors to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize food and agriculture workers in the vaccine rollout.

In a letter sent to the National Governor's Association on Wednesday, the caucus made an urgent case: Latinos make up more than a third of the workforce in those industries, yet they account for nearly three-fourths of confirmed coronavirus cases in the same sectors.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted long-standing health, economic, and social inequities that continue to disproportionately impact Latinos and other communities of color," the letter reads. "... Given the nature of the work and the urgency to understand how best to reach workers in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways, collaboration with farm workers, food production workers, and community-based organizations will be crucial to any State Vaccination Plan."

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), chair of the Hispanic Caucus, told All Things Considered that prioritizing these groups is only the start of many hurdles to getting Latino populations vaccinated.

"They are disproportionately not receiving allocations of vaccines, or the method of opening up vaccines to them do not work," Ruiz says.

While Latinos are getting sick from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates, early data show a relatively small number of Latinos are getting vaccinated.

Ruiz, who's also a physician, has recently spent time educating farm workers in his district about vaccines. Ruiz represents the state's 36th district, based largely in the desert communities of Riverside County where Latinos account for almost half of the population.

He says language barriers, misinformation and a general distrust of the health system are among the challenges that contribute to vaccine hesitancy among Latino communities. A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation released last month found that 26% of Hispanics were unlikely to get vaccinated. Those hesitant cited misinformation about the cost of a vaccine, perceived vaccine side effects, a lack of transportation and — particularly among young Hispanics — a distrust of government officials.

"A lot of the information is in English and not in a language that will help them understand and empower them to navigate the system," the congressman says.

To build trust, he says, "partnering with local communities is key."

The congressman is also urging states to prioritize vaccine distribution to retail pharmacies near hard-hit communities.

Latino populations in many parts of the country lack access to available vaccines. In major cities across the Southern U.S., as NPR found, most vaccination sites are located in whiter neighborhoods.

It's also up to governors, Ruiz says, to make an "active, concerted effort to reach the communities in order to make their vaccine plan actually work for the hardest-hit communities within their states."

That effort should involve buy-in from employers within the food and agricultural industry, he says.

"These programs won't work if growers don't allow the time for their workers to go to the vaccine clinic and also provide transportation," says Ruiz.

At the same time, he says, counties and vaccine providers should be required to document their distribution efforts"so that we can understand where we have inequity issues and the mismatch between the high burden of disease and illness from COVID and the amount of vaccines that they're receiving."

NPR's Lauren Hodges and Andrea Hsu produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.