By Ann McCreary
With a supply of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Family Health Centers has launched a campaign to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to agricultural workers who are arriving in the region to work in orchards.
In collaboration with growers, Family Health Centers is organizing vaccination events specifically for migrant seasonal agricultural workers. Last week 90 agricultural workers for Gebbers Farms were vaccinated at the first event, held on March 25 at Douglas Okanogan Fire District 15 in Pateros, said Julie Wehmeyer, infection control manager for Family Health Centers.
On Monday (March 29) an additional 301 workers were vaccinated, and another 650 are expected to be vaccinated at two more events within the next week, Wehmeyer said. She estimated that as many as 1,500 additional agricultural workers will be vaccinated in coming weeks.
Family Health Centers received 900 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week to provide to agricultural workers, and received another 1,200 doses this week, Wehmeyer said.
The vaccine is being supplied to Family Health Centers through a new federal program to ensure underserved communities and people disproportionately affected by COVID-19 have access to vaccinations.
The program is providing vaccine directly to 250 health care organizations around the country that are part of a national system of “federally qualified health centers.” These are community-based organizations that provide affordable and accessible health care, many of them in rural settings like Family Health Centers, which operates six clinics in Okanogan County and one in Bridgeport.
Among the underserved and disproportionately affected communities identified under the new program are migrant/seasonal workers and people with limited English proficiency.
As a participant in the program, Family Health Centers is receiving a supply of vaccine to vaccinate agricultural workers. The vaccine is sent directly to the federally qualified health centers by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which funds the health centers. The vaccine provided by HRSA is separate from other weekly supplies allocated through the state.
“The vaccines we get from the state are still limited, so being able to receive those additional vaccines from HRSA allows us to continue giving state vaccines to our clinic patients, and gives us the additional vaccines for the ag workers,” said Melodie White, chief operations officer for Family Health Centers.
Making a difference
Alicia Lugo, a bilingual community health worker with Family Health Centers, has been meeting with growers and agricultural workers to provide information and help complete paperwork for vaccinations, Wehmeyer said. “It makes all the difference” to have a Spanish-speaking community health worker to answer questions and make workers feel comfortable about getting vaccinated, Wehmeyer said.
At the vaccination events, vans brought workers employed by Gebbers Farms, with paperwork already completed, to the fire station in Pateros. Public health and EMS staff gave rapid COVID-19 tests, which are required prior to the vaccinations, Wehmeyer said. The vaccinations for 90 workers at the first event were completed in a little over an hour. Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being used, only one dose is needed.
“It’s rewarding. It’s a wonderful opportunity to show people new to our area as well as our country … that we care and we want you to have the same opportunity to stay healthy,” Wehmeyer said. “I think Okanogan County is doing an outstanding job … trying to meet the needs of the agricultural workers who help feed us. And it takes a big commitment from the growers.”
Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster has also been working with growers in the area to help agricultural workers get vaccinated, said spokesperson Jennifer Best.
“At our last Three Rivers event in Pateros on March 17, we were asking growers to send us groups of their employees, and we helped them register on the spot with paper forms and entered them into our system after the event,” Best said.
Usually vaccination events require online registration in advance, “but a lot of these ag workers don’t have easy access to register for the vaccine themselves, or they need help with the form,” she said.
Three Rivers Hospital received 500 doses of Moderna vaccine this week to provide first shots. “Because we want to help vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible, we are transferring all 500 doses to Mid-Valley Hospital. Our teams will work together to administer these vaccines at the fairgrounds this Friday,” Best said.
North Valley Hospital in Tonasket has been supplying the vaccine for large vaccination events on Fridays at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds organized by Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak, but North Valley not receive any vaccine for first doses this week, so Three Rivers is providing its allocation for the event.
“We’ve partnered with every health organization in our county in some form or fashion, to meet the community’s need for the vaccine. The teamwork has been stellar,” Best said.
North Valley Hospital had provided 8,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as of last week, and had transferred 4,200 doses to other vaccine providers, like Mid-Valley Hospital. But North Valley Hospital, which has had a fairly consistent supply of vaccine since mid-December, has not received a new supply of since March 15, said CEO John McReynolds.
“We are in a holding pattern until more doses are allocated … we are only focusing on second doses with our remaining 200 shots,” McReynolds said.
Family Health Centers, outside of the new vaccination program for agricultural workers, is trying to meet a goal of delivering 100 shots each week at its health clinics, said Wehmeyer.
The county’s centralized vaccination registration system, launched a couple of weeks ago, showed about 1,353 people registered as of the beginning of this week, Best said.
She advised everyone who wants a vaccine to register, even if they are not yet eligible under state priority guidelines. People who are registered will be contacted for an appointment when they become eligible.
The online registration allows people to select areas of the county where they’d prefer to be vaccinated, and even their preferred brand of vaccine, Best said. She urged people to make sure they will be available to return for their second dose on the recommended schedule before making an appointment.
The Moderna vaccine requires two doses 28 days apart, and the Pfizer vaccine requires 21 days between doses. Most vaccinations are being given at large scheduled events to make sure no doses are wasted after a vial of vaccine is opened, so there isn’t flexibility in scheduling individual shots, Best noted. Some people “are holding out for the Johnson & Johnson (single dose) vaccine,” she said.
Vaccine allocations from the federal government to Washington has increased in recent weeks, but still fall short of what providers are requesting, according to the state Department of Health. This week’s allocation of 408,730 doses is almost 81,000 doses less than requested by the state’s providers.
On Wednesday (March 31), eligibility for a vaccination opens for new groups of people in Washington, including everyone over 60 years old. Vaccinations are also open to anyone 16 or older with two or more comorbidities or underlying conditions; anyone living in a congregate setting (such as correctional facilities, group homes or homeless shelters); and additional workers in congregate settings including restaurants, food services, manufacturing and construction.
According to state health officials, the new eligibility will make vaccinations available to an additional 2 million Washington residents, bringing the total to 5 million people eligible to be vaccinated.
The phased approach to eligibility is expected to end by the beginning of May. President Biden recently directed states, tribes and territories to remove eligibility restrictions and make all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine no later than May 1.
As of March 29, state health data show that 13,293 people in Okanogan County had received at last one shot of vaccine, almost 32% of the county’s 42,000 residents, and 10,114 people were fully vaccinated, about 24% of the county’s population.
To register for a vaccine in Okanogan County
okanogancountycovid19.org and follow instructions to create an account
For questions or assistance, or if you don’t have computer access, call the Okanogan County COVID-19 Hotline:
To locate vaccine providers, including pharmacies, go to:
Vaccinefinder.org (a federal website)
doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/Immunization/VaccineLocations (a Washington Department of Health website)