The commonwealth’s food and agriculture workers and veterinarians are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine under the Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 Vaccine Phase 1b. Every health district in Virginia has moved into Phase 1b, which means these workers are eligible regardless of their home county.
“Our nation’s food supply depends on farmers’ and frontline agricultural workers’ ability to work safely,” said Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “The work of planting, cultivating, harvesting, packaging and processing crops and livestock cannot be conducted remotely or accomplished without contact. Despite swift implementation of best practices and state and federal guidance in the fields and processing facilities, the agricultural workforce remains at heightened risk of infection, as do the frontline critical-risk workers.”
“We have all seen the significant toll that disruption of the agricultural food supply chain places on communities and families,” Rowe said. “It’s important for them to get vaccinated as soon as possible. We appreciate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Commonwealth of Virginia recognized the role of the agricultural workforce in public health and food security and prioritized them for vaccine allocation in Phase 1b.”
A mass vaccination clinic targeting farmworkers in the Blue Ridge Health District was held in late February. Currently, the Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District has partnered with Virginia Cooperative Extension agents to disseminate an online survey to gauge interest in holding vaccine clinics for farmers, nursery workers, aquaculturalists and agribusiness workers.
In Appomattox County, extension agents helped organize vaccination clinics on March 3 and March 10 for area farmers.
The county’s extension agents, Bonnie Tillotson and Bruce Jones, said they had 100 doses available for the first clinic, but after they contacted hundreds of farmers, only 60 signed up. “Then word of mouth took over, and our phones were ringing off the hook,” Tillotson said. There was a waiting list for the second clinic.
“A lot of farmers are older, so they’re already in the high-risk bracket, and they need to stay healthy to get out in their fields and feed their livestock and keep our food supply going,” Tillotson said.
“Our farm is family-operated, so if someone gets ill from COVID, there’s no one to fill in,” said Lee McClenny, who operates a beef cattle farm in Pamplin with her husband, Kenneth. The couple received their first vaccine at the March 10 clinic in Appomattox.
On the Eastern Shore where some of the state’s largest poultry processing facilities are located, the Delmarva Chicken Association is encouraging its members to get vaccinated.
“Farmers have stayed steady throughout this pandemic as market disruptions, quarantines and labor shortages complicated their day-to-day work producing food for Americans and the world,” said Holly Porter, DCA’s executive director. “Now that vaccine availability is reaching Virginia’s farmers and their employees as frontline essential workers in Phase 1b, the promise of getting back to normal is very close, and that’s a relief.”
Rowe also said he’s optimistic about the increased availability of the vaccine, especially in rural areas.
“Rural areas, home to the largest percentage of Virginia’s farmers and farm workers, have borne a greater burden from the virus, in part because they tend to have older populations with a high prevalence of underlying medical conditions, and they may lack nearby medical care or facilities,” Rowe said. “We are glad to see rural health districts working to provide greater access to vaccination clinics within close proximity to agricultural operations and their related processing facilities.”