Vaccinating Migrant Farmworkers, and Treating Them as Essential, in the "Muck Fields" of Ohio

A sign, left, shows patients where to line up outside of Hartville Migrant Ministry in Hartville, Ohio. Right, a health department partner prepares a patient for the vaccine. Photos: Jennifer Maurer

In the spring of 2020, migrant farmworkers flew under the radar. Confused, scared, determined, and hard-working, this community continued showing up to work in the fields and meatpacking facilities, wondering if their status as essential workers would offer them any protection from a virus that would physically or financially wreak havoc on their lives. These essential workers did not plant yard signs that said, “A hero lives here!” Nobody tearfully thanked them for their service. They were not offered PPE loans, and the greater community did not rally around them to ensure they could weather the pandemic with their health, well-being, and financial stability intact. 

If you’ve enjoyed access to affordable fruits and vegetables in the last year and a half, you have a migrant farmworker to thank. Considered essential, the farmworkers had to continue traveling for their work, often with underlying health conditions of heart disease and diabetes caused, in part, by long hours and even longer years working the fields and facilities. Unexpected childcare costs cropped up when schools and childcare centers closed, quickly draining the savings usually accumulated to get through the winter months. Contracting COVID-19 could take a life in this vulnerable community, but more immediately, quarantining for any length of time meant loss of precious income. Compounding concerns over quarantine, migrant farmworkers often live in generational or communal housing, so quarantining one worker meant contact tracing an entire family, a devastating loss of income. In March 2020, Hartville Migrant Ministry --  located in fertile, black dirt  “muck fields"  of Hartville, Ohio --  decided to take action.

The ministry recalibrated their plans for the growing season and changed their services to provide masks, food, COVID testing, information, and other resources - making them perfectly positioned to partner with the IFYC Vaccination Ambassador program. Primarily a medical clinic, Hartville Migrant Ministry already spent decades earning the trust of the migrant community and breaking down barriers to medical health access. They intimately knew how punitive governmental policies impacted a migrant worker’s likelihood of accessing health services in the greater community. They knew that losing even two hours of work to travel to and attend an appointment meant a significant loss of wages. They understood the rampant misinformation that made its way into the workers’ camps and the difficulty of believing that anything encouraged by the government could be for their good. They knew the struggle of accurate doctor and patient communication when each spoke a different native language. Finally, they knew that the migrant farmworker community trusted them, and they knew that providing the vaccine for their patients was a pivotal way to prove that trustworthiness. 

With an abundance of hard work, creativity, and community partnerships, the clinic was able to establish five COVID-19 vaccination clinics over the course of the growing season. The staff worked with the local health department to proffer the vaccinations on-site, allowing the farmworkers to miss as little work time as possible and capitalizing on the earned trust of the clinic. Volunteers and staff worked tirelessly to combat vaccination misinformation, translating and distributing key flyers and pamphlets and sharing accurate information with migrant community leaders who were then better positioned to answer questions about the development and side effects of the vaccine. I worked with the rest of the staff to recruit, schedule, and prepare doctors, nurses, and community volunteers to help execute efficient and effective vaccination clinics.

With funding from IFYC, I planned each clinic to utilize at least four interpreters to help patients fill out paperwork, ask questions of the doctors, explain potential side effects, and generally ensure high-quality communication and the linguistic comfort of the patients. In addition, the clinic staff coordinated with the growers (the employers) for efficiency in providing the vaccine to teams of fieldworkers and getting the patients through as quickly as possible. Finally, we turned up the air conditioning and served Gatorade, water, coffee, and food for the patients and their families. This respite acknowledged the hard work and hot working conditions on the fields and assured that the patients were hydrated and well-fed while medical supervisors confirmed they weren't experiencing negative reactions to the vaccine.

Our COVID-19 vaccination clinics buzzed with excitement and anticipation. We arrived early to ensure everything was in place, cheerfully welcoming volunteers with a quick run-down of their assigned duties. From staff to doctors to community volunteers, each person expressed gratitude at being a part of something significant. Patients arrived well before our official start time, but once everything was ready, we welcomed them in and ushered them through the paperwork. Farmworkers brought their spouses, parents, and grandparents, pleading, “Can they get the shot here, too?” We didn’t turn away a single person, only once needing to obtain more vaccines than we planned to fill the need. Doctors were able to answer real-time questions - usually asked in Spanish and interpreted by our clinic interpreters. Questions about the side effects and efficacy and misinformation about fertility and testing were discussed and clarified, building trust and increasing the vaccination interest with each clinic we held. In total, this effort administered 327 COVID-19 vaccinations and fully vaccinated 155 individuals in the migrant farmworker community of northeast Ohio, a much greater turnout than expected.

By breaking down barriers of language, misinformation, and distrust, we were able to provide some long-term solutions and care for this vulnerable population. Most migrant farmworkers live by the growing season (May through mid-October in Ohio), planning only six months at a time. Planning ahead can be foolhardy - who knows what the weather will bring, what physical ailments or unexpected bills will crop up, how policies will impact their day-to-day lives. The migrant community is resilient. They’re astonishingly hard-working, family-oriented, generous, and kind. They are essential. In so many ways, their “under the radar” presence in our lives and communities is essential. Taking our cues of resiliency from the community we served, we were honored to problem-solve and work hard to provide the COVID-19 vaccination to the migrant farmworker community. They may not have signs in their yards proclaiming their status as essential workers and they may not be publicly thanked by politicians and celebrities, but they are inarguably our heroes. They are essential. 

 

Jennifer Maurer served the migrant farm working community of northeast Ohio for three growing seasons as the Volunteer Coordinator of Hartville Migrant Ministry. She is a graduate student of Malone University’s Clinical Mental Health program and describes herself as an interminable advocate for the vulnerable.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.