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Hit Hard By Pandemic, Farmworkers Receive COVID-19 Vaccines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than half of all farmworkers hired in the United States are from Mexico. They come to the U.S. and back again on temporary work visas. In some states, farmworkers are on the COVID vaccine priority list, which gives them easier access to vaccines than they would get at home. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: White vans carrying small groups of farmworkers drive up periodically to the Parish Hall at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Cobden, Ill., dropping off groups of men who have recently arrived from Mexico. Many of them will be here until October on temporary agricultural work visas. And on only their third day here, they're getting vaccinated. Thirty-four-year-old Jorge Feria just arrived from Oaxaca, Mexico. Moments after receiving his shot, he felt relieved.

JORGE FERIA: (Through interpreter) We have the fortune to come work through a visa and have a government that cares about the people that come to work in the fields. We are very grateful.

CRONIN: He says if he had stayed in Mexico, he wouldn't be vaccinated. In fact, he doesn't know anyone in Mexico who has yet gotten the shot. It's a big deal for many of these workers. Farmworkers have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. According to researchers at Purdue University, in the U.S. alone, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers have tested positive for the virus and thousands have died.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Relax your arm.

CRONIN: Jose Martinez rolls up the sleeve of his blue tie-dye T-shirt in preparation for the shot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're all set.

JOSE MARTINEZ: Nothing hurt. Nothing hurt.

CRONIN: Martinez, who's originally from Mexico, now lives in Illinois year-round working as a forklift operator at a farm. He says most of his family also works on farms and almost all are vaccinated. His parents, though, remain in Mexico.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) They're not vaccinated yet because in Mexico, it's really hard to get it.

CRONIN: Carlos Leonardo Magis Rodriguez teaches medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

CARLOS LEONARDO MAGIS RODRIGUEZ: The real problem is that we don't have enough vaccines.

CRONIN: He says the supply issues mean that most Mexican residents, even health care workers, aren't yet vaccinated. Mexico's vaccine distribution plan is age-based. And Magis Rodriguez says he expects 20 to 30 year olds won't become eligible until maybe next January, meaning many of the farmworkers getting their shots in the U.S. now will likely be nearly a full year ahead of their peers back home. Some farmworkers say many of their friends and family members are afraid to get vaccinated after hearing false information and conspiracy theories.

ELEAZAR CHAVEZ: (Through interpreter) That the government is against the people and that they're putting the virus in our bodies.

CRONIN: Eleazar Chavez also recently arrived from Oaxaca on a work visa. The night before getting vaccinated, he attended an informational session put on by a local health clinic. Karla Grathler ran that Q&A session. She says many workers come in both concerned and unprepared for the vaccine. And it's important to dispel myths right away with accurate information about vaccines.

KARLA GRATHLER: How they work in the body, what kinds of vaccines we have in the market, what kind of vaccines that we're going to receive today and then what to expect after receiving the vaccine.

CRONIN: After some initial hesitation, Grathler says all 22 of the most recently arrived farmworkers got their vaccine shots.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin in Cobden, Ill.

INSKEEP: Her story was co-reported with Side Effects Public Media's Christine Herman in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "QUOTIDIAN DEBRIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.