Vermont Healthcare Organizations Helping Immunize Migrant Farm Workers Statewide


Eva, who asked to be identified only by her first name, has worked on a Franklin County dairy farm for 12 years. Photo by Elodie Reed / Vermont Public Radio

Alicia Rodriguez rushed through the cow pens, looking for her husband.

In his hand was a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine that would expire in just five minutes.

Rodriguez was volunteering for the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury in March at the start of his campaign to vaccinate migrant farm workers in Addison County. The clinic provides free medical services to underserved populations.

She found her husband just in time, making him one of more than 2,000 migrant farm workers and their neighbors that Vermont health care organizations have worked together to immunize over the past six months.

“The most important thing is to get the vaccine in the arm and protect them and our community,” said Julia Doucet, outreach nurse at Open Door Clinic. “So whatever way it has to happen, we make it happen. “

Bridges to Health, run by the University of Vermont Extension, is another program that has helped get shot in the arms of migrant workers. Since April, the program has helped coordinate vaccinations for about 900 people on more than 100 farms.

Open Door Clinic and Bridges to Health support Latino dairy workers such as Rodriguez’s husband and H-2A temporary farm visa holders, many of whom come from Jamaica to work on fruit and vegetable farms across the state. .

These workers face a number of barriers to healthcare, Doucet said. This could include a lack of health insurance, transportation, or knowledge of the U.S. healthcare system, or the inability to take time off work or understand English.

Both programs help migrant workers bypass many of these barriers, which could also prevent workers from getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Open Door Clinic and Bridges to Health Officers visit farms to answer questions, test for the virus, and vaccinate migrant workers and others working around them.

If necessary, they come with interpreters or staff who speak Spanish. And they continued to make farm visits to offer second doses and to vaccinate late adopters or newcomers to Vermont.

Eva, 30, has worked on a Franklin County dairy farm for 12 years. She said she received the Moderna vaccine as part of the Bridges to Health program.

Speaking in Spanish with an interpreter, Eva said it can sometimes be difficult to stay physically away from other farm workers, although she hasn’t fallen ill.

“My personal life, really, is working 12 hours a day,” Eva said. “And my daughter used to go to school, but right now she’s at home.”

Eva lives in Franklin County with five other people, including 18-year-old William.

The workers interviewed for this story chose to identify themselves by their first name to protect their identity and avoid possible repercussions on employment or the justice system.

William said he received the Moderna vaccine at a pharmacy with the help of a Bridges to Health agent. He said he felt safe at work during the pandemic.

“It felt good to finally have him,” he said through an interpreter.

Elean, 21, lives in the same house. He works nights on the farm and said he’s not too afraid of getting sick after getting the Moderna vaccine.

“We go out to the store sometimes, but we just come back here,” Elean said of the people he lives with. “And, you know, take care of each other.”

Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, hired 57 H-2A workers this year to work on his 300-acre orchard. With the help of Open Door Clinic, the farm was also able to test and vaccinate workers this year.

Champlain Orchards made headlines in October when 27 workers tested positive for Covid-19. All but one held an H-2A visa from Jamaica. The orchard was able to isolate those infected, quarantine close contacts and contain the spread.

Suhr said the clinic’s work was essential in preventing another outbreak and providing health care to its workers over the years.

The relationships the Open Door Clinic has formed with farm workers in Addison County have also helped convince those who are reluctant to get vaccinated.

“We are fighting the Internet,” Rodriguez said.

Doucet visited the same farms for the flu shot every year, and the same workers came to see her at the clinic. If Doucet says vaccines are safe, then they trust him.

“People respect and believe in [the clinic]”Rodriguez said.” They have doubts, but they trust the doctors who have served them for years. “

Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, migrant health coordinator at UVM Extension, said the Open Door clinic is a great example of a local health network for underserved populations. She hopes it can be replicated in the other 13 counties in the state as well.

Bridges to Health works with a patchwork of grants, limited and often part-time staff, and a number of local health organizations. The pandemic has allowed them to mobilize these resources on a larger scale, but they know it won’t last forever.

To build confidence and maintain people’s access to health care beyond the pandemic, Bridges to Health needs “a strong community health worker program that can have people on the ground more effectively. consistent, ”Wolcott-MacCausland said.

“We’ve done a good job of making do with what we have,” she said, “but it’s not sustainable in the long run.”

Shaun Robinson contributed reporting.

VTDigger and Vermont Public Radio co-reported this story.

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