Cars lined up in front of Grow Dat Youth Farm's herb garden for a vaccination drive in City Park on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

On Sunday afternoon, a line gathered on the deck of Grow Dat Youth Farm, a nonprofit vegetable farm in City Park, for a vaccination drive aimed at people who work in agriculture and food services.

The drive, a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Health, Grow Dat, the local Food Policy Advisory Committee, Crescent City Farmers Market and agricultural nonprofit SPROUT NOLA, delivered about 70 doses of vaccines over the afternoon.

“Vaccines are a really important part of getting back to the work that we do on a daily basis,” said Devon Turner, Grow Dat’s executive director. “And I certainly see people in food systems as being critical essential workers. … We’ve watched with bated breath, waiting for the day that the tier will open for ag workers. Personally, it did feel like it was a long time coming.”

Farmers across the country have had to contend with massive business shocks as they’ve had to replace lost restaurant and other hospitality sales. Grow Dat, which sells mostly to CSA customers, hasn’t lost business in that way.

But the four-person staff, Turner said, harvested the entire spring’s crop — 37,000 pounds of produce — when they normally would have been helped by hundreds of volunteers. “The level of physical wear and tear is starting to show,” she said.

The event has been in the works for months, since Marguerite Green — SPROUT’s director and 2019 candidate Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner — first learned that farm workers might become eligible for the vaccine before the general public. She immediately began working on a letter that would serve as employment verification for farm workers who might not have proof of employment, running it past city officials and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain’s office. 

From there, she began laying out plans for a community vaccination event for food workers, reaching out to the Crescent City Farmers Market, as well as companies and nonprofits providing meals and groceries. Many of those plans were put on ice until LDH reached out two weeks ago.

In the week before the event, “We went to corner stores in pretty much every Orleans Parish neighborhood,” Green said.

But, she said, after the first wave of excitement that food workers might be prioritized, she’s become frustrated that the event took this long. She’d hoped that it could be a model for similar vaccine programs and would have started conversations with large agricultural employers. 

“At this point, it’s hard to figure out who’s not getting reached,” she said.

Vaccinating farm and food workers is particularly important because seasonal work often involves congregate living arrangements with little room for social distancing. LDH has documented 43 COVID outbreaks connected to food processing facilities, leading to 1,078 cases. (LDH doesn’t publish data on outbreaks at farms.)

LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten told the Lens that when the agency traced an outbreak to a food processing facility, it resulted in an average of 20 cases. 

“If we traced it to a congregate living setup, like a dorm, the average was around 80.”

The hot weather fruit and vegetable season is just around the corner, which means that farms will begin hiring large numbers of migrant workers on H-2A visas, who may face language or other barriers to vaccinations. According to data from the LSU AgCenter, there were about 250,000 workers with H-2A visas in Louisiana in 2019. 

And vaccinating food workers is likely a key component of achieving the state’s racial equity goals. According to a recent analysis by the Data Center, “Butchers and meat, poultry and fish processing workers in Louisiana are 47 percent Black and 11 percent Hispanic.”

As of right now, LDH doesn’t have a specifically farm-and-food oriented vaccination program, though it has held other events for those workers, and regularly runs community vaccination sites in rural parish health units. The Department of Agriculture and Forestry has done public service announcements and provided logistical support, but isn’t coordinating specific events.

Last month, LDH partnered with the Plaquemines Parish Medical Center for a vaccine event in Buras, targeted at workers with two commercial fishing operations: Westbank Fishing, which catches a small herring called a menhaden; and Daybrook Fisheries, which processes the catch.

According to the company, Daybrook processes close to half of the Gulf menhaden output in an average year. Both Westrbrook and Daybrook had COVID outbreaks last spring, and this year’s season was set to begin in April. During the season, workers “have a congregate living situation so that people aren’t commuting to try to get to lower Plaquemines,” Elizabeth Belcher, the public health emergency coordinator for LDH’s Region 1 office said. (The facilities didn’t respond to interview requests.)

The event was conducted in two phases. The morning was reserved for eligible employees from the plants, who signed up through the companies, and drove to the vaccination site at a nearby auditorium. In the afternoon, LDH worked with the parish government to schedule any nearby resident.

That part of Plaquemines is nearly 60 miles from New Orleans, and although it’s technically managed by the same LDH regional office, “transportation barriers can be huge,” said Belcher. LDH also provided translation services in Spanish and Vietnamese, and learned that it would need to provide Cambodian translators in the future.

Plaquemines Medical Center staff vaccinated 130 fishery employees at the event, and 110 other residents.

Belcher also said that her office has plans to reach other coastal communities in the greater New Orleans area, but that this situation “expedited that outreach.”

“We’re living in unprecedented times, and we’re kind of building the plane as we fly it, and we have a lot of plans in place that need to be rewritten,” said Belcher when asked about those plans. She said that she’s working with community organizations that are serving fishers, but the event “is going to serve as a model for how we reach other coastal communities.”

But the fisheries event also demonstrates the challenge of coordinating between vaccinators and food systems. Its impetus was a text sent to an employee in the Governor’s office by a “concerned citizen,” who “heard through her network that there was a fishery in lower Plaquemines, and the majority of their workers are Black or Latino or Vietnamese,” Belcher said. “She was concerned … that due to geographic isolation, they were not getting access to the vaccine.”

That message worked its way to Secretary of Health Dr. Courtney Phillips, who is from Port Sulphur, and from there, to an on-the-ground event.

Green said that although she had a plan in place to get vaccines out, it wasn’t clear where to turn for a partnership. She first attempted to contact the city of New Orleans through an online form, and then through a company, Passport Health, who she believed to be providing vaccines in partnership with local public health bodies. After an initial conversation, however, she never heard back, she said. Eventually, she got a call from LDH.

Passport Health is actually partnering with Jefferson Parish, and the online form wasn’t intended to process proposed vaccination partnerships, Beau Tidwell, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell told the Lens when asked about the communications.

Green said that she was never told that she was reaching out through the wrong channels.

‘Every day there’s more people wanting the vaccine’

Pic Billingsley, the director of development and engineering of Sanderson Farms, which operates a chicken processing plant in Hammond, said that between 25 and 30 percent of the facility’s 600 employees have started their vaccinations so far.

That’s higher than the regional average: in LDH’s Region 9, which includes Hammond, only about 20 percent of people have had a first dose.

Sanderson Farms, like many meat packing plants, reported COVID cases early in the pandemic. Some locations offered workers attendance bonuses if they continued showing up to work, but a worker’s advocacy group criticized the company’s Texas locations for insufficient COVID precautions. BIllingsley said that the company has taken more precautions based on the advice of a consulting infectious disease doctor.

About 100 of those employees were vaccinated about two weeks ago through an event at the plant itself. The company was initially in talks with LDH to partner on the event, but ended up using its existing medical provider, CORE Occupational Medicine, instead.

“They would come in, they would get vaccinated, they would go to a place where they could social distance for an allotted time after the vaccine,” Billingsley said. “Then they go back to work or they would go home.”

“If you have a side effect that causes you to miss work, it’s our commitment to you for taking the vaccine, we’ll make you whole for that day missed.” However, he said that no employee has reported side effects so far.

Such policies are likely to be important during the next stage of vaccination.

“When requiring vaccinations, employers should ask employees what kinds of support they might need to get the vaccine,” argues the Data Center report. “Hotels and restaurants can facilitate greater vaccine uptake by providing paid time off to the thousands of hospitality workers in New Orleans.”

Billingsley said that Sanderson Farms has not discussed providing incentives, like cash or time off, for getting the vaccine. “That ought to be the individual person’s decision on if they want to be vaccinated, and so far we’ve left it up to them to see where this process goes,” he said.

But, he said, “Every day there’s more people wanting the vaccine, because they know a coworker who’s had it, and has gone through the two weeks afterward, and they decide, I want to get it too.” Workers who want to receive a first dose will be able to when second doses are distributed.

But a number of observers have criticized the fact that food workers became eligible for the vaccine so late in the process. In the first week of January, the state announced that food and grocery workers would be included in Phase 1B, Tier 2, along with other workers like teachers and correctional facility employees. But over the next two months, many of those other essential workers became eligible, along with most adults, based on pre-existing conditions.

Farm and food workers were only made eligible on March 22, just a week before eligibility opened to the entire adult population.

“These workers, hailed as ‘essential’ throughout the pandemic, were given access only after Louisianans 16 years and older with pre-existing conditions,” the Data Center report reads.

Green worries that the late eligibility represents a missed chance to start conversations about vaccination with farm and food workers.

“If we’d gotten access to this earlier, we would have better been able to target people with those potential barriers than we can now,” she said. “The news would have travelled like wildfire.”

“There’s an inherent momentum to it. People talk. They say: ‘What are you doing Monday?’ ‘I’m going to [this vaccine event.]’ ‘Oh shit, I’m also eligible for that.’” That might have allowed Sprout, LDH, or other groups to start conversations with people who are cautious about taking the vaccine.

Without that momentum, she says, it’s not clear that outreach by community nonprofits like SPROUT would be as effective, since they don’t have the capacity to reach out to every company with at-risk, possibly hesitant employees. 

“I would really like for the people who feed us to be a priority in the future.”