By Liz Carey
While some rural areas are struggling to use all the vaccines they’ve been given, a new program from the Biden Administration is helping others get the vaccinations they need.
Administrated by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Health Center Covid-19 Vaccine Program is designed to ship doses of the vaccines directly to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC), many in rural areas, as a way to get shots into arms of those disproportionately affected by the disease – the homeless, public housing residents and migrant workers.
“There are more than 1,300 Community Health Centers serving almost 30 million people across the country,” the White House said in a statement. “Two-thirds of the population that these centers serve are living at or below the federal poverty line and 60 percent are racial and/or ethnic minorities. The program will be phased in, with the first centers able to start ordering vaccines as early as the week of February 15. The initial phase will include at least one Community Health Center in each state, expanding to 250 centers in the coming weeks.”
Since rural populations tend to be older, sicker and poorer, the program is helping some rural clinics address the needs in other populations as well.
In Toppenish, Washington, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic serves residents of a mostly poor and mostly minority community. The clinic is an FQHC located on Yakima Indian Territory and is the agricultural center for Yakima Valley. Since its founding in 1973, the single health care center has grown into one of the largest community health centers in the Northwest, with over 40 clinics in 18 communities, most of them rural, in Washington and Oregon. Residents are mostly non-white and minority and 29 percent of the clinic patients are seasonal and migrant farm workers.
Prior to the rollout of the Health Center program, getting a vaccine was a shot in the dark, says Lori Kelley, Senior Director of Quality and Patient Safety at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.
“Some weeks we’d get some doses from the state, but then the next two weeks, we would get any,” Kelley said. “It was very inconsistent and frustrating. The state did everything they could, but we got zero vaccines several weeks in a row.”
That changed when they accepted an invitation to join HRSA’s program as one of the first 25 health care centers to get the vaccines directly from the federal government.
“We are first of all, so grateful to be a part of the program,” Kelley said. “We’re in the second set of shipments this week. Already it’s made such an impact on our communities.”
The FQHC went from having no doses to giving 8,177 first dose shots in two weeks, she said. Now, after not knowing how many vaccines she would get, if any, she’s able to go online and order vaccines, knowing that they will be delivered.
Even as vaccines are being delivered to large chain pharmacies, it’s important that the FQHCs get the vaccine, she said.
“There is no pharmacy in Toppenish,” she said. “Farm Workers Clinic is the pharmacy.”
Washington state is currently on Phase 1b, she said. The state is expected to go to the next phase of the vaccine distribution, which includes teachers, childcare workers, and migrant and seasonal farm workers, on March 22.
Getting vaccines into the arms of migrant workers is important too, she said.
“They can’t do their jobs from home,” Kelley said.
Allison Crittenden, Director of Congressional Relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed.
“We certainly would want agriculture to have that prioritization, if possible,” she said. “It’s been incredibly important during the pandemic for farmers and farmworkers alike to ensure that their workplaces are safe and there are measures in place to mitigate the spread of Covid. That’s something that farmers across the country have really taken seriously. And we think vaccine prioritization is the next logical step.”
As the year inches towards H2A season – where migrant workers come to America for a specific time to pick crops on a single farm – plans are being put in place to make sure those workers quarantine and get the vaccine. While farmers would prefer that migrant workers get vaccinated before they leave their home country, they want to ensure that they do get vaccinated one way or the other.
The Farm Bureau has been in talks with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she said, to address how to get vaccines into the arms of migrant farm workers on the move.
“We had conversations with folks from the CDC that are working on both agricultural guidance as well as getting vaccines out to the essential workforce,” she said.
“We’ve also spoken with the CDC individuals who actually are leading the charge for rural communities and migrant communities…We want to make sure that these community health groups, and state health departments are deploying those first round of vaccines that match with the appropriate second round wherever the individuals may end up as they travel throughout the growing season.”