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Farmers and farmworkers are now widely eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, giving the nation’s essential food producers an opportunity to protect themselves from the virus.

Agriculture and food workers are part of the 1b priority group. But the Northeastern states have quickly expanded access to the vaccine in the past few weeks, and in most places residents 16 or older can register for the shot now.

Joel Rotz, manager of government relations at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said farmers should take the opportunity to get vaccinated.

“This is just another place where they need to put their faith in science and protect themselves — if not for themselves, for those around them and those that love them,” Rotz said.

Like farmers, food processing workers have remained at their in-person jobs throughout the pandemic, and some of these workers have died.

Food workers’ contributions during the pandemic need to be honored, said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s ag secretary, during an April 7 visit to an Adams County vaccine clinic.

“When they’re protected, our food system’s protected,” he said.

More than 75 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and 122 million have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A number of groups across the region have been working to make sure people in the food supply chain can get vaccinated.

New York Farm Bureau has been pressing pressing state officials to prioritize farmworkers, and coordinating with local health systems and migrant health clinics.

Employers Supporting Workers as Vaccines Roll Out

Many farms are hoping to host on-site vaccinations, Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said.

On Delmarva, chicken processor Mountaire Farms is working to vaccinate all workers who want the shot, a spokeswoman said. The company was giving $40 Visa gift cards to employees who received both shots.

At Nicholas Meat in Loganton, Pennsylvania, leaders are encouraging the 350 employees and the 150 contractors to get the vaccine.

So far, the reaction at the meatpacker has been mixed.

“Some want to get it. Some don’t. It’s a personal choice, and we’re explaining the options they have,” said Brian Miller, the company’s director of sustainability.

In the meantime, the company has built a new entrance to the plant that conducts temperature screening and uses thermal imaging cameras to detect if masks are being worn properly.

“We were impacted with some cases at the beginning (of the pandemic), but since then we’ve been ahead of the curve and didn’t shut down at all,” Miller said. “Now that the new facility is up and running, we feel we have things under control while employees make their own choice about the vaccine.”

In southeastern Pennsylvania, the Lancaster County Agriculture Council has helped hundreds of ag and food workers get vaccinated.

Executive Director Scott Sheely called food processors’ human resources managers and surveyed farms to see what their needs were.

He counted 2,300 people from 13 food processors, several hundred workers from a group of family-owned supermarkets, and about 30 people from farms who were interested in getting the shots.

Sheely relayed those numbers to the county vaccination project to help with planning. Several companies have since told him that their workers have succeeded in getting appointments, he said.

Sauder’s Eggs is one of those companies.

By the end of this week, the Lititz company was expecting to pass the halfway mark for workers to get appointments for vaccinations.

“As an essential employer and supplier to the food chain, we find it extremely important to maintain the flow of food,” said Dave Yeager, Sauder’s safety compliance manager. “More importantly, we have an obligation to help look out for the health and safety of our team.”

The company is facilitating sign-ups for interested workers and answering employees’ questions about the vaccine.

The sign-up process has been smooth, though the portal is only in English. That has caused some challenges for workers who speak Burmese, Vietnamese and other languages, Yeager said.

Guestworkers Eligible

The Northeastern states generally restrict vaccines to people who live, work or study within their borders.

But farmworkers, even those who are foreign nationals, are eligible in many cases.

New Jersey even emphasizes that undocumented people in the state can get the vaccine.

Foreign farmworkers in Pennsylvania can go to any vaccine provider in the state, said Shannon Powers, the Ag Department press secretary.

Workers may find it convenient to schedule a vaccine through Keystone Health, a longstanding provider of services to migrant agricultural workers across Pennsylvania. Keystone has a federal contract to vaccinate farmworkers.

Farmers and farmworkers may contact the organization at keystonehealth.org/keystoneagworkerprogram or 717-334-0001.

Understanding the Vaccines

Public health officials believe vaccination will be key to ending the pandemic, which has killed nearly 560,000 Americans and disrupted the economy over the past year.

Three vaccines have received emergency use authorization in the United States, and the CDC says they are highly effective at preventing COVID-19, especially severe illness and death.

While some people have placed hope in herd immunity to control the spread of the disease, the CDC says it’s better to get vaccinated than risk getting sick.

COVID-19 can cause an array of complications, including life-threatening and long-lasting ones, and there’s no way to know how it will affect an individual.

For farmers, personal safety is just one benefit of the vaccine. It could also prevent disruptions from workers getting sick. And widespread vaccination across the country will increase the likelihood that restaurants and institutional food buyers return to full capacity.

Pfizer and Moderna make the two key vaccines available in the United States right now. These vaccines both require two shots delivered several weeks apart.

The vaccines do not contain the virus that causes COVID-19, but they train the body to recognize and create antibodies for a protein, harmless in itself, that is found on the surface of the pathogen.

Common side effects of the vaccines include pain, redness and swelling in the arm where the shot was given, as well as tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea.

These side effects indicate that the body is building protection against COVID-19 and should go away after a few days.

A small number of people have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine, but vaccine providers are equipped to immediately treat this reaction. After receiving the shot, people will be asked to wait 15 to 30 minutes to monitor for this reaction.

Long-term side effects following any vaccination are extremely rare and have not been reported for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

On Tuesday, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration recommended a pause in use of a third vaccine by Johnson & Johnson.

The agencies were investigating rare blood clots that occurred in six women out of more than 6.8 million does of the vaccine that have been given in the United States.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which European officials believe could also be linked to a very rare blood clotting issue, is not authorized for use in the U.S.

The Pfizer and Moderna shots have not been connected to this problem and use a different technology than the other vaccines.

Once You Are Vaccinated

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their last shot.

At that point, the CDC says vaccinated people can safely gather indoors without a mask with other vaccinated people — and with unvaccinated people from one other household, unless those people or those who live with them are at an elevated risk for severe COVID-19.

Vaccinated people should still wear a mask in public and avoid large gatherings, according to the CDC.

People who have already gotten COVID-19 should still be vaccinated because it’s not yet known how long their immune systems are protected from reinfection, the agency says.

Researchers are still trying to determine how effective the vaccines are against recent COVID-19 variants.

Tom Venesky contributed reporting.

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