Irvin Escobar, a 26-year-old employee at Hansen Fruit, has avoided coronavirus infection so far.

He credits a mix of safety practices — washing hands, wearing masks — and pure faith.

“The main thing was trusting in God,” he said.

Escobar now had another means of protection from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus: A Johnson & Johnson vaccine shot, which he received during a Friday clinic at Hansen Fruit.

He admits that he likely wouldn’t have sought out a shot on his own, but the on-site clinic made getting it an easy decision.

“I’m excited to get it and continue with life,” he said.

Escobar was one of nearly 250 workers who received vaccine doses at the mass vaccine clinic at Hansen Fruit. Such clinics are one tool the local agriculture industry has been using to ensure that as many workers as possible are vaccinated.

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Employees of Allan Bros. in Naches, Yakima County, also received vaccinations.

“It’s about doing our part for our community and trying to get beyond this,” said Eric Hansen, owner at Hansen Fruit.

Hansen said he hoped to vaccinate most, if not all, of the workers in the company’s packing operation Friday and hope to hold additional clinics or other efforts to vaccinate workers at its orchards throughout Central Washington.

Agricultural workers are part of Phase 1B, Tier 2 under the state’s vaccine priority plan. Those workers, along with many others in the same category, became eligible on March 17.

Just weeks after workers became eligible, agricultural employers, farmworker advocates and health organizations have been quick to organize on-site vaccination clinics and group appointments to speed up the vaccination process.

For those in the local tree fruit industry, the aim is to get all workers vaccinated before the start of the cherry harvest in June at the latest, said Tim Kovis of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

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“The more opportunities, the better,” Kovis said.

Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic has had several on-site clinics, including the one at Hansen Fruit.

Ana Aguilera, administration services manager who was at Hansen Fruit on Friday, said agricultural employers play an essential role in encouraging employees to get the vaccine and completing the necessary paperwork to ensure a quick distribution process.

Hansen said he’s making vaccination voluntary but hopes a $100 cash incentive will persuade workers. Workers were paid during their vaccinations.

When workers arrived, clinic staff already had vaccine cards and documents organized by the employee’s birthday and name. Working ahead meant that staff could administer upward of 250 shots within a few hours.

“We want to have everything prepared and ready to go so we can do the bare minimum on-site,” Aguilera said.

In addition to the on-site clinics, Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic also accommodated agricultural workers’ group appointments at its clinic and at its other mass vaccine sites.

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Partnerships with Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic and other health organizations are crucial for employers, which are making vaccination voluntary for workers, Kovis said. Every employer has different needs, so it’s essential to provide various avenues to distribute vaccines.

“A lot of what we tried to do is utilize our stakeholders and relationships to provide resources and opportunities,” Kovis said.

Matson Fruit

On Friday, Matson Fruit in Selah, Yakima County, closed its packing line early so its employees could get vaccinated at a different on-site vaccination clinic. Employees from neighboring businesses, such as Helms True Value Hardware, were also invited along with the packing house employees.

The mobile vaccination site was organized through a pilot program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, launched in the county this week. The project provides an additional supply of vaccines for the mass vaccination site at Central Washington State Fair Park and mobile vaccination sites, such as the one at Matson Fruit.

General manager Jordan Matson said his aim is not to force workers to get the vaccine but rather to provide information. Before Friday’s effort, 28% of the packing house workers were vaccinated, and Matson expected 50 more workers to receive vaccine through the FEMA mobile site.

Matson said he plans to hold another on-site clinic from the company’s orchard in Selah. There are plans to have additional clinics as more foreign guest workers arrive through the H-2A program.

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“I’m quite pleased to be able to offer this opportunity for people to get vaccinated for COVID,” he said.

New procedures

The local agriculture industry is hoping the vaccine will prevent the substantial infection activity seen a year ago. A year ago, the industry scrambled to implement safety measures, such as mask wearing and physical distancing.

The agriculture and food production industry, which represented of 15% of total cases, contributed to Yakima County reporting some of the highest infection rates not just in the state but nationwide per capita in May and June.

In May, workers from several packing houses, including Hansen Fruit and Matson, protested over safety concerns. Workers’ action prompted some employers to provide cash bonuses and raises, evaluate safety measures and provide personal protective equipment.

Over time, agricultural employers continued to improve safety measures. The Yakima Health District had a designated team to respond to outbreaks, namely at agricultural housing facilities.

The Yakima Health District said it has been able to prevent and respond to recent infections in agricultural workers quickly, said Brittany Morrison, lead for the department’s COVID-19 Outbreak Response and Investigation team, in a written statement.

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“Through the testing that has been coordinated between the state Department of Health and Medical Teams International, there have been very few positive [cases] identified in arriving agricultural workers, and those that have been identified were able to be isolated quickly,” Morrison said.

Getting agricultural workers vaccinated quickly is a crucial part of minimizing infections in the coming months, she said.

“Our outbreak team is working on vaccination among agricultural and food production workers through coordination of mobile clinics in conjunction with FEMA and other county partners,” Morrison wrote. “We are still responding to cases and outbreaks that may occur and are hoping that vaccine accessibility will prevent future outbreaks from happening.”