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Farm groups seek vaccine priority for food workers

Issue Date: December 23, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

As COVID-19 vaccines make their way into circulation, efforts continue to assure that farm and food-production employees receive timely inoculations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two COVID-19 vaccines for use; a second vaccine earned FDA emergency use authorization last week. Widespread availability is not expected until spring at the earliest.

A bill in the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 93, seeks to "prioritize workers in the food supply industry, including, but not limited to, field workers and grocery workers, for rapid testing and vaccination programs in response to pandemics."

The bill is sponsored by Assemblymen Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, and Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, the latter being chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

The California Farm Bureau and many other agricultural organizations around the state sent a letter to Garcia last week, expressing support for the legislation.

"As an essential workforce, those in the agricultural industry never stopped working during the pandemic," the letter states. "These individuals continued to harvest, pack, and process food so grocery store shelves remained stocked, and will continue to do so even as portions of the state remain in varying levels of closure."

Supporting the bill "made perfect sense to us," said Bryan Little, Farm Bureau director of employment policy and chief operating officer of Farm Bureau affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service.

"If we're going to continue furnishing food for people, obviously farmers need a healthy workforce," Little said.

The state Community Vaccine Advisory Committee listed agricultural employees among those who should have priority for COVID-19 vaccines in the second round. After meeting last week, the committee included employees in food and agriculture in its recommendations, along with people working in emergency services and education/child care.

At the federal level, the American Farm Bureau Federation signed a Dec. 1 letter to President-elect Joe Biden's transition team, asking that his administration—which takes office Jan. 20—grant priority vaccine access to people working in essential critical infrastructure.

"As organizations representing our nation's food and agricultural production sector, our members take seriously the tremendous responsibility we have to protect the health of our farmers and workers so that we may continue feeding the nation. We stand ready to work with you in meeting this challenge," the letter said; it was signed by 26 national agricultural organizations.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has designated food and agriculture as critical infrastructure, the letter noted, ensuring that "planting, harvesting, processing, and distribution of human and animal food can continue to meet the needs of consumers."

"We fully appreciate and support that our nation's heroic first responders, medical professionals, elderly and caretakers, along with other vulnerable individuals, clearly have the highest priority for vaccination," the agricultural groups' letter said.

Once vaccines have been distributed to those highest-priority groups, the farm organizations requested that "front-line food and agriculture employees be included in the next highest priority for the vaccine within any federal COVID-19 Vaccination Plans."

In the meantime, Little said, it is vital for agricultural employers to stay vigilant with pandemic safety measures and guidance relating to masks, social distancing, tracing, reporting and disinfection of commonly touched surfaces.

Farmers and ranchers should also monitor vaccine developments and be in touch with local public health departments, he added.

"The local public health department will be talking to local media and local government leaders about when vaccines are available to people beyond the health care delivery sector," Little said.

It is also vital that farmers and ranchers talk to their physicians about their medical situations and encourage their employees to do the same, Little noted.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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