This is what vaccine equity looks like!…

A labor bus drops off dozens of workers directly from the fields at a vaccination clinic in Immokalee as part of a massive vaccination campaign in the Immokalee farmworker community last week.  The Johnson & Johnson vaccines were provided by the FL Department of Emergency Management, with extensive coordination, education, interpretation, and local outreach by the CIW and additional support from the Healthcare Network, Partners In Health, and Mision Peniel. Since vaccination efforts began in Immokalee, more than 4,000 workers have received the vaccine.

CIW’s Nely Rodriguez: “After months of calling for vaccine access for farmworkers… thousands of workers and other Immokalee neighbors lined up hundreds at a time to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a major victory in the battle against the pandemic and in our ongoing efforts to protect the lives of essential workers.”

Late last month, the CIW — joined by the Health Care Network and Partners in Health, our partners in the fight against COVID-19 in Florida’s essential farmworker communities — took to the opinion pages of the Naples Daily News and Ft. Myers News-Press to call attention to the urgent need for a more equitable vaccine distribution in Florida, writing:

Immokalee is a small, unincorporated farming community located just north of the Everglades in Southwest Florida, home primarily to migrant farmworkers.  Perhaps best known as the location for Edward R. Murrow’s seminal documentary on farm labor exploitation, “Harvest of Shame,” or more recently as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in the words of federal prosecutors, Immokalee has set the bar in this country for social and economic marginalization for generations, despite its residents’ essential contributions to Florida’s $131 billion agricultural industry. 

So when late model luxury cars and expensive SUVs started rolling into the Winn-Dixie parking lot for the mass DOH COVID-19 vaccination event in Immokalee in early January, something was clearly amiss.  Hundreds had assembled to receive the precious vaccine, but the entire cohort had signed up online and traveled there from Florida’s wealthy coastal communities, leaving no room for Immokalee’s impoverished residents in the queue.  

Stories about underserved, majority Black and Brown communities drawing crowds of non-residents for vaccination events have become a national concern, reflecting not only the understandable desperation of vaccine seekers, but also the intractable fragility of access to health care for our most vulnerable citizens.  Meanwhile, people in poor and marginalized communities continue to die due to COVID-19 at alarmingly disproportionate rates, reminding us that, for all too many Americans, poverty is the real disease… (read more)

The op/ed went on to discuss the promising new partnership formed several months ago among the three organizations — CIW, PIH, and HCN — to combat COVID-19, and the organizations’ first successful attempt to target the Immokalee farmworker community for COVID vaccine distribution, concluding:

… While this novel partnership is still in its infancy, the message from its early success is critical: Reaching underserved communities means not only “meeting people where they are,” but also avoiding easy assumptions like vaccine hesitancy to explain away inequities.  With the farmworker community at the table, as equals, with health-care professionals, the alliance had both the insight and experience necessary to quickly identify bottlenecks, eliminate barriers, and expand access to the vaccine.  To the degree that vaccine hesitancy exists — and it does, across all demographics — seeing friends and neighbors benefit from vaccination is the surest cure.

The pace of healing in Immokalee — and in countless communities across the country like Immokalee — will be dictated by the degree to which we reach those who need us most.  And that is an invaluable lesson for our health care system as a whole, once the pandemic is behind us.

And just this last week in Immokalee, the pace of healing in Immokalee reached a new speed, with the vaccination of thousands of farmworkers — many of them arriving at the walk-up clinic straight from the fields — thanks to vaccines provided by the Florida Department of Emergency Management and the efforts of the CIW and its invaluable new partners!  Here below are a few more photos from the week’s clinics, the first truly hopeful development with regard to COVID in Immokalee since the start of the pandemic over a year ago:

The unprecedented public health progress in the Immokalee farmworker community caught the attention of the local media, of course, with reports from both the local CBS and NBC affiliates.  Here below is the CBS (Wink News) video; you can find the NBC-2 story here:
The vaccination effort continues this week, with the goal of exhausting demand in the Immokalee community  (which shows no signs of slowing down yet) before workers head north for the summer season to harvest blueberries, watermelons, and tomatoes on farms from Georgia to Maine.  To wrap up today’s post, we’ll give the CIW’s Nely Rodriguez, from a statement to the press on last week’s remarkable advance in the fight against the deadly virus, the last word:
“Last week, after months of calling for vaccine access for farmworkers – the women and men who have labored to put food on our tables, in spite of the unique vulnerability to COVID-19 they face both at home and at work – thousands of workers and other Immokalee neighbors lined up hundreds at a time to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a major victory in the battle against the pandemic and in our ongoing efforts to protect the lives of essential workers.  
But opening up statewide eligibility and getting the vaccines themselves was only the first step.  Pulling off a massive vaccination effort in a community like Immokalee was only possible through the Florida Department of Emergency Management’s close collaboration with our organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and other local partners.  Our three decades of struggle to improve the lives of farmworkers, and the trust that flows from that struggle, combined with the decade-old partnership with major agricultural employers through the Fair Food Program, allowed us to respond at a moment’s notice to the opportunity and provide the necessary ingredients to make vaccines truly accessible to farmworkers:  We offered logistical advice on when and where the vaccines should be administered, and were able to quickly secure a space with our longtime partner, Mision Peniel, at the heart of town.  In the early hours of the morning, we handed out flyers about the vaccine events and broadcast on our radio station, catching workers on their way out to the fields.  We dedicated virtually our entire staff to this effort, coordinating between all local partners and regional growers.  We popped up tents and chairs each morning with a small army of support staff and bilingual and trilingual interpreters to do walk-up registration for workers, to accompany nurses as they gave the life-saving vaccines, and to answer questions and educate workers on the vaccines before they left.  We also brought in critical support from Partners In Health and the Healthcare Network, who we have worked closely with to respond to COVID-19 over the past year. 
Although there is still more work to be done, this past week was a major victory for public health equity, and an urgent and necessary step in protecting the migrant workers who will be heading north in May to follow the harvest up the East Coast for the next five months.”
Check back soon for much more news, including the latest from the Wendy’s Boycott and more updates from the fight against COVID-19 in Immokalee!