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Vermont health care organizations help vaccinate migrant farmworkers statewide - vtdigger.org

Eva, who asked to be identified by only her first name, has worked on a dairy farm in Franklin County for 12 years. Photo by Elodie Reed/Vermont Public Radio

Alicia Rodriguez dashed through the cow corrals, searching for her husband.

In her hand was a Covid-19 vaccine dose that would expire in just five minutes.

Rodriguez was volunteering with Middlebury-based Open Door Clinic in March at the start of its campaign to vaccinate migrant farmworkers in Addison County. The clinic provides free medical services to underserved populations.

She found her husband in the nick of time, making him one of more than 2,000 migrant farmworkers and those adjacent to them whom Vermont health care organizations have worked together to vaccinate over the past six months. 

“The most important thing is to get the vaccine in the arm and get them and our community protected,” said Julia Doucet, an outreach nurse at Open Door Clinic. “So however that needs to happen, we make it happen.”

Another program that’s been helping get shots in the arms of migrant workers is Bridges to Health, run by the University of Vermont Extension. Since April, the program has helped coordinate vaccinations for about 900 individuals on more than 100 farms.

Both Open Door Clinic and Bridges to Health support Latino dairy workers such as Rodriguez’s husband and H-2A temporary agricultural visa holders, many of whom come from Jamaica to work on fruit and vegetable farms across the state.

These workers face a number of roadblocks to health care, Doucet said. That could include a lack of health insurance, transportation or knowledge about the American health care system, or the inability to take time off work or understand English.

The two programs help migrant workers circumvent many of those barriers, which could also prevent the workers from getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Open Door Clinic and Bridges to Health workers travel to farms to answer questions, test for the virus, and vaccinate migrant workers and others who work around them. 

If needed, they come with interpreters or staff who speak Spanish. And they have continued to make farm visits to offer second doses and vaccinate late-adopters or newcomers to Vermont.

Eva, 30, has worked on a dairy farm in Franklin County for 12 years. She said she received the Moderna vaccine through the Bridges to Health program.

Speaking in Spanish with an interpreter, Eva said it can sometimes be difficult to stay physically distanced from other workers on the farm, though she has not gotten sick.

“My personal life, really, is working 12 hours a day,” Eva said. “And before, my daughter was going to school, but right now she’s at home.”

Eva lives in Franklin County with five other people, including William, 18.

The workers interviewed for this story chose to identify themselves by their first names to protect their identities and avoid potential employment or legal repercussions. 

William said he received the Moderna vaccine at a pharmacy with help from a Bridges to Health worker. He said he has felt safe at work during the pandemic.

“It made me feel good to finally get it,” he said through an interpreter.

Elean, 21, lives in the same house. He works a night shift on the farm and said he hasn’t been too worried about getting sick after receiving the Moderna vaccine.

“We do go out to the store sometimes, but then we just come right back here,” Elean said of the people he lives with. “And, you know, take care of each other.”

Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, hired 57 H-2A workers this year to work on his 300-acre orchard. With help from Open Door Clinic, the farm has also been able to test and vaccinate workers this year as well.

Champlain Orchards made headlines in October when 27 workers tested positive for Covid-19. All but one were H-2A visa holders from Jamaica. The orchard was able to isolate those infected, quarantine close contacts and contain the spread. 

Suhr said the clinic’s work has been critical in terms of preventing another outbreak and providing health care for its workers over the years.

The relationships Open Door Clinic has formed with farmworkers across Addison County have also helped convince those who are vaccine-hesitant to get the shot.

“We are fighting the internet,” Rodriguez said. 

Doucet has visited the same farms for flu shots annually, and the same workers have come to see her at the clinic. If Doucet says the vaccines are safe, then they trust her. 

“People respect and believe in [the clinic],” Rodriguez said. “They have their doubts, but they trust the medics who have served them for years.”

Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, migrant health coordinator at UVM Extension, said Open Door Clinic is a great example of a local health network for underserved populations. She hopes it can be replicated in the state’s 13 other counties, too.

Bridges to Health works with a patchwork of grants, limited and often part-time staff and a number of local health organizations. The pandemic has allowed them to mobilize these resources on a larger scale, but they know it won’t last forever.

To build trust and maintain people’s access to health care beyond the pandemic, Bridges to Health needs “a robust community health worker program that can have people on the ground more consistently,” Wolcott-MacCausland said. 

“We’ve done a good job of making do with what we have,” she said, “but it’s not sustainable long term.”

Shaun Robinson contributed reporting.

VTDigger and Vermont Public Radio co-reported this story.

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