FL Gov: Vaccinating essential workers? “That’s not the direction we want to go…”

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Make a contribution today to double the impact and help us fight to protect Florida’s essential farmworker communities. Click here to donate.

Over the past several months, we have shared dispatches from the front in the Immokalee community’s battle with the coronavirus, a battle joined from the very first days of the pandemic, when it became painfully clear that Florida’s state and local public health officials had decided to effectively abdicate their duty to protect the state’s essential workers.  The CIW stepped in to fill that void with a patchwork quilt of private partnerships — including two of the world’s leading health organizations, Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health — to educate workers on the deadly virus, secure and distribute urgently needed protective equipment, collaborate with growers to protect thousands of workers on Fair Food Program farms, and call for adequate community testing, contact tracing, and support for workers and their families in quarantine.  Today, as the year comes to a close, we’re turning our attention to what we hope will be the final chapter of the COVID-19 crisis: the vaccination campaign.

We have learned a lot about this virus.  We know that it hits poor communities of color with particular ruthlessness; we know that essential workers whose jobs put them in harm’s way are at far greater risk than those working from the safety of their homes; and we know that, in spite of those hard facts, when it comes to resources to protect and support people through the pandemic, the most at risk are too often left to fend for themselves.  That’s true nowhere more than right here in Immokalee.

In this next chapter of the pandemic, we must ensure that farmworker communities — arguably among the most essential and most vulnerable worker communities — get early access to the COVID-19 vaccine to both blunt the virus’s deadly impact and to stop its spread.  But, if the pandemic’s past is in fact prologue, ensuring an equitable strategy for vaccine distribution will not be easy.

Will you chip in to support our mobilization to get urgently-needed vaccines to farmworkers across Florida? If you donate today, your donation will be doubled! 

Farmworkers in the Sunshine State are the very definition of essential workers: in addition to putting food on our tables, they are the backbone of Florida’s second-largest industry, which accounts for billions in GDP for the state, as well as millions of jobs.  With the nation’s food supply at stake, not to mention the tenuous recovery from the nation’s worst economic recession in years, Florida simply cannot afford to fail the farmworker community in this time of crisis.  

Moreover, farmworkers are among the state’s most vulnerable communities.  Their cramped living and working conditions make social distancing and isolation impossible, acting “as a superconductor for the transmission of the virus,” as we warned in a New York Times op/ed in the first days of the pandemic.  Their grinding poverty and lack of access to adequate health care even in the best of times mean farmworkers suffer a disproportionate incidence of the pre-existing conditions that cause COVID’s very worst outcomes.  And the fact that paid sick leave remains a distant dream for the vast majority of farmworkers renders workers reluctant to get tested when they are exposed or feeling symptoms, and unable to rest at home when they are sick, driving the spread of the virus among their co-workers and fueling a vicious cycle of sickness and infection.

Yet in spite of the health risks, farmworkers have been working non-stop since March, risking their own health every single day to keep our families fed, with little or no attention from state and local health authorities.  The very least we — as a state, and as a country — can do is take care of them in return by showing them the same respect we show other essential, front line workers.  We must ensure they have access to the vaccine as soon as possible, to protect the health of farmworkers and their families, to maximize the impact of the vaccine in stopping the spread of the virus, and to protect the country’s food supply and delicate economic recovery.

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Yet in spite of all of the clear moral, economic, and epidemiological arguments for swiftly providing vaccines to Florida’s essential farmworker communities, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared last week that he would be defying CDC guidelines and skipping over all essential workers in the initial vaccine roll-out:

Florida’s governor is not prioritizing essential workers for vaccines, ignoring official advice. ‘I don’t think that’s the direction we want to go,’ he said.
Dec. 23, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that essential workers would not be prioritized in the state’s next round of COVID-19 vaccinations, going against US health officials’ advice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said at a meeting on Sunday that frontline essential workers and people over the age of 75 should be next in line for a shot.

But DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference Tuesday that people over 70 would come first…

…The CDC classified frontline essential workers as first responders (such as firefighters and police officers), education staff, food and agriculture workers, manufacturing workers, corrections officers, US Postal Service staff, public-transit workers, and staff at grocery stores.

“If you’re a 22-year-old worker in food services at a supermarket, you would have preference over a 74 year-old grandmother. I don’t think that’s the direction we want to go,” DeSantis said at a press conference.

As a community, we cannot allow this misguided exclusion of essential workers to stand. 

In the words of one older resident in the wake of Gov. DeSantis’s announcement:  “As anxious as I am to get the vaccine, I think that essential workers need it first. People who have to work and expose themselves for my benefit: those in the grocery store, the hair salon, the doctor’s office, those who grow, harvest, transport, and prepare my food, those who are still providing for their families, need to be protected in order to protect those of us who are more vulnerable due to age.”

In an ideal world, we would all receive the vaccine at once, with no exceptions or preference.  But we live in a world of limited resources, and the distribution of the precious COVID-19 vaccine is no exception.  The vaccine must be distributed over the coming months pursuant to a strategy based on solid public health principles and a clear, fair, and impartial logic.  It must be aimed at not only reducing hospitalization and deaths, but at halting the spread of the virus as well.  

And for all those reasons, it must place Florida’s farmworkers near the head of the line as vaccines roll out across the state.  

With one voice, we must tell Florida’s political leaders that protecting farmworkers is a priority. Will you join us to support this fight? Click here to pitch in today and your contribution will count double.