A worker at Valicoff Fruit's Zillah-area orchard drives a tractor pulling a spraying unit through the apricot orchard on March 5, 2020. The trees have come into bloom early due to recent warm weather. (Donald W. Meyers/Yakima Herald-Republic)

News that agricultural workers will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine later this month was welcomed by both farmworker advocates and industry groups.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday said the state would expand vaccine eligibility for agricultural and grocery store workers starting March 22, contingent on the state’s vaccine supply continuing to increase.

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers, said the announcement was in line with a governor’s office promise to prioritize farmworkers in future allocations of COVID-19 vaccines.

Getting farmworkers vaccinated as quickly as possible will be key to reverse the disproportionately negative impact COVID-19 has had on farmworkers in the past year, Strater said.

Also, there is a sense of urgency with spring agricultural activities, such as the asparagus harvest, set to start in the coming weeks, which would mean the arrival of the first groups of migrant and foreign workers to the Yakima Valley, she said.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said he is encouraged by the news.

The supply was the biggest issue in getting agricultural workers prioritized for vaccination. DeVaney said approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which only requires a single shot and doesn’t require extensive refrigeration like the other COVID-19 vaccines, was a critical turning point.

The vaccine will be easier to transport and distribute to remote and rural areas, he said.

Both Strater and DeVaney agree that the next step is a distribution plan. That will likely involve a collaboration of employers, farmworker advocates and local health organizations.

DeVaney said his organization has talked with various community and health organizations regarding a distribution strategy, including mobile clinics and vaccination events with agricultural employers. Earlier this year, the organization sent a letter encouraging the state to collaborate with agricultural groups on a vaccination distribution strategy.

DeVaney said the state has been reluctant to discuss any distribution plan for agricultural workers specifically but hopes that will change with Thursday’s announcement.

“It should be easier to engage all the relevant parties in making more concrete plans,” DeVaney said.

DeVaney said farmworker advocates and community organizations would play a critical role in not just distribution but education about the importance of getting vaccinated.

Strater, of United Farm Workers, said that based on surveys done by the union, farmworkers, for the most part, want the vaccine.

“We don’t have to convince them,” Strater said. “We just have to get it to them, and the programs are administered in a way that’s accessible to them.”

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang

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