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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Dr. John Tomkowiak and Jason Clark: Keeping agriculture workers safe from COVID-19

By Dr. John Tomkowiak and Jason Clark

Washington’s agriculture community faced a daunting challenge two years ago.

How does Washington’s agriculture industry keep workers safe to harvest, process and deliver food during the COVID-19 pandemic? In response to this challenge, over 60 Washington organizations formed an alliance: the Partnership for our Food Security. Partners include Range Community Clinic, Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington State Tree Fruit Association, the Washington Department of Agriculture, and our organizations, WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, and Second Harvest. The mission is straightforward. Educate and vaccinate as many agriculture workers as possible, as quickly as possible.

By all reports, the results of this coordinated effort have been remarkable. Together, the partnership has achieved a 95% vaccination rate among H2A migrant agriculture workers and a rate of over 50% among in-state agriculture workers. H2A is shorthand for the visa used to legally come to the U.S. to work in agriculture.

These impressive results were accomplished through education and access.

The partnership listened to worker concerns and addressed them. Partners enlisted trusted voices in the agriculture, political, religious, and Hispanic communities from across the state including Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson, State Representative Alex Ybarra, former Everett City Council Member Paul Roberts, and Pasco physician Dr. Raul Garcia to talk to workers and their families about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These messengers reached out through a variety of platforms, including radio, TV and live presentations to groups and individuals throughout the state.

In cooperation and support of agriculture companies, partner organizations set up mobile vaccination clinics in vineyards, fields, packing houses, processing plants, churches, schools, food drives, health clinics and apartment buildings. In other words, wherever agriculture workers work, play, live and pray, Partnership for our Food Security was there.

Range Community Clinic conducted over 40 COVID-19 vaccination clinics on its William A. Crosetto Mobile Health Care Unit in Fairfield, Republic, Curlew, Rosalia, Clarkston, Garfield and other rural Eastern Washington communities since 2020. Staffed with WSU medical, nursing and pharmacy students, the clinics were coordinated with local public health districts to deliver over 3,000 vaccinations.

Second Harvest hosted a bilingual food and vaccine drive where community members could pick up a box of food and speak with medical professionals to see if receiving a COVID-19 vaccine would be right for them.

With over 255 community members served, it’s safe to say the event was a success. This was just one event of many that the partnership has been instrumental in organizing.

Our success would not be possible without the leadership of Jim Waldo and the countless hours all our partners have dedicated to this volunteer effort.

The partnership understands that the COVID-19 pandemic is a marathon and is dedicated to continuing this effort until the pandemic is over. Our goal is to keep Washington’s agriculture workers healthy and safe again from COVID-19 this harvest season.

If you would like more information about the Partnership or join our effort, please contact Gerri Downs @Gerri6584@gmail.com.

Dr. John Tomkowiak is the founding dean of WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Jason Clark is president and CEO of Second Harvest Inland Northwest. Both are in Spokane.

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