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Business

Here’s how one of Idaho’s biggest potato farms got hundreds of its workers vaccinated

 
 

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One of the largest potato producers in Idaho had just days to prepare for something its leaders had been anxiously awaiting for months.

“The vaccines were out in December, and we started contacting our health department because we were anxious,” said Stephanie Mickelsen, whose family operates Mickelsen Farms and several potato packing and processing facilities in the Idaho Falls region. “We do have a very vulnerable and sometimes transient — depending on the time of year — group of employees.”

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Earlier this month, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced that agricultural employees and other food workers would be eligible for the vaccine almost a month earlier than many local health officials had anticipated. By working with “strike teams” from health care providers and pharmacies, organizing mass vaccination clinics for companies like Mickelsen Farms willing to pay to have them on-site at their plants and farms and recruiting bilingual assistance from health care staff and employers, public health districts sprung into action with just a few days notice.

Efforts like that are a relief for many in Idaho’s agricultural sector who had struggled during the pandemic, especially in the beginning. Other businesses around the state shut down just as operations were ramping up for many farms around Idaho. National restaurant closures and the shutdown of international borders disrupted supply chains, forcing local producers to bury onions or dump thousands of gallons of milk.

In many ways, their workers are the ones who have absorbed the brunt of the virus’s toll. COVID-19 spread easily in meatpacking plants and food processing plants around the state. The Idaho Statesman tracked roughly 1,000 coronavirus cases in more than 30 agribusinesses around the state, and linked the deaths of at least three employees to outbreaks in Idaho agribusinesses.

With the more-contagious COVID-19 variants spreading in Idaho and cases rising again in the Idaho Falls and Rexburg regions, about a dozen nurses and staff from occupational health provider Sterling Medical — including some nurses that came from Wyoming — vaccinated roughly 350 people employed by Mickelsen Farms, Rigby Produce and Potato Products of Idaho in four hours.

Lino Cortez, an Idaho Falls resident who runs the farm shop at Mickelsen Farms, was one of 350 employees of Mickelsen Farms and their subsidiaries who got the vaccine March 12. He contracted a mild case of COVID-19 in October — he guesses from checking the temperature and symptoms of other employees who eventually got sick, too.

Cortez said he spoke to several Mickelsen Farms employees about the need for the vaccine. He said many were worried about getting the vaccine because of misleading reports about its safety and side effects circulating on social media. He and some other workers had headaches, soreness and other common side effects of the vaccine over the weekend, Cortez said. But by Monday, when he spoke to the Statesman, everyone he knew was better and back at work.

“I feel pretty good,” Cortez said.

More than 350 employees of Mickelsen Farms and Rigby Produce were vaccinated earlier this month. Courtesy of Mickelsen Farms

Employer-based clinics could remove barriers for farmworkers, Spanish-speakers

Hosting an on-site employee vaccine clinic is a template many Idaho agribusinesses are considering — or rushing to accomplish themselves. Sterling Medical is working with several employers who reached out for help like Mickelsen Farms did, and hopes to eventually hold clinics or arrange vaccines for roughly 200 employers in the region. Mickelsen estimated it will cost their company about $30 dollars for each employee vaccinated to host the on-site clinics. (The cost of the vaccine itself is covered by the federal government and free for individuals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

“It was great to have that as our first experience, because it made us realize how many we really could get through,” said Sami Evans, occupational director at Sterling Medical. “We could have probably done double what we did, if not more. And so to know that we can administer that many vaccinations in that amount of time and be so organized, it helps us moving forward and scheduling these clinics, on how we can coordinate those and be able to get more vaccinations done in a limited amount of time.”

Since the Mickelsen Farms clinic last week, Eastern Idaho Public Health has already arranged more than a dozen on-site vaccine clinics for farms and agribusinesses in the region. Other districts are doing the same.

The South Central Public Health District has helped more than 15 employers in the Magic Valley region set up on-site vaccine clinics or clinics specifically for their employees. District spokesperson Brianna Bodily said more call every day. In Southeastern Idaho, “strike teams” from a number of health care providers and pharamacies like Bingham Memorial, Rockland Pharmacy and Firth Medical Center have been deployed to vaccinate workers at food processing plants like Lamb Weston, JR Simplot, Basic American Foods, Driscoll’s Potato Warehouse, Liberty Gold Potato, Agri Beef and NonPareil Potatoes. Southeastern Idaho Public Health, based in Pocatello, is also working with two additional agribusinesses, according to Allison Bischoff, the district’s clinical services director.

Southwest District Health in Caldwell didn’t provide similar information in response to a Statesman request by time of publication, but Terry Reilly, the Mexican Consulate in Boise, Family Medicine Residency of Idaho and nonprofits like the Community Council of Idaho are holding clinics specifically for farmworkers and food plant employees in the Treasure Valley. A Terry Reilly mobile clinic vaccinated about 130 workers in Wilder on Thursday, according to Idaho News 6.

James Corbett, the community health division administrator at Eastern Idaho Public Health, said employers who host clinics for their workers on-site remove barriers making it especially difficult for many farmworkers, immigrants and Spanish-speaking employees to get vaccinated. Requiring proof of employment or photo identification can scare away undocumented people — even though you don’t need to have legal status to get the vaccine — while others working 12- to 16-hour days may struggle to take time off work for a clinic during the day.

It can also just make the job easier for health care workers trying to vaccinate hundreds of people a day.

“Those obstacles we can help overcome by doing some on-site, specifically in some of these manufacturers as well,” Corbett said. “It’s very difficult to verify that different individuals work in those priority groups as assigned by CVAC (Idaho’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee) and the governor. Going on-site, you can help mitigate that right away. That reduces a barrier right there and a slowdown of potential clinics.”

‘People need to understand that the vaccines are safe’

Notably, group 2.3 on CVAC’s priority list is the first of Idaho’s priority groups likely to include large numbers of Latino workers — even though Idaho Latinos were testing positive in disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts for much of the pandemic. Latinos still make up relatively low percentages of the health care, education and public safety sectors in Idaho, who were among the first essential worker groups prioritized for the vaccine. Information from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs also shows that Idaho’s Latino population trends much younger, and only 5% of the state’s senior residents are estimated to identify as Hispanic or Latino. Overall, roughly 13% of the state’s population is Hispanic or Latino.

Rosa Cardenas, who works in human resources at Rigby Produce, helped the company gather paperwork from other employees ahead of time to help the clinic go smoothly the day of. Like many other workers, she was concerned about taking the vaccine because of speculation and misinformation she saw on social media. Cardenas joked that she was hoping they would run out of doses before it was her turn.

“I think the most common question was the symptoms,” said Cardenas, who said she hasn’t contracted COVID-19. “Were we going to get sick? You hear so many things on social media nowadays.”

Roughly 90% of Mickelsen Farms employees and 70-85% of employees at their processing plants chose to be vaccinated. That’s likely because Mickelsen Farms operators will eventually require all of their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, barring any religious or medical exemptions.

“That was kind of the position we took because our exposure is so great,” Mickelsen said. She, along with the rest of her family who help operate the farm and other businesses, got the vaccine, too. “People need to understand that the vaccines are safe,” she said.

The Mickelsen Farms and food plant employees who participated in the clinic will get their second dose of the Moderna vaccine during the first week of April. The week after they got their first dose, the Idaho Falls and Rexburg areas topped the New York Times list of the worst virus hot spots in the nation. Roughly 88% of ICU beds were filled in East Idaho hospitals on any given day, according to the Post Register. Bonneville County is regularly reporting more daily cases than Ada County, despite being a quarter of the size.

“With this variant strain, it makes us nervous as an employer,” Mickelsen said. ”Because if you get somebody with a variant strain and not much of your people have been vaccinated, it can take out your crews. On the farm side, if you take out the crews during critical times of planting and harvest, that could be irreparable harm.”

This story was originally published March 21, 2021 4:00 AM.

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