Willamette Valley Vineyards

Farmworkers at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore. Farmworkers and food industry workers in most Western states will be among the third or fourth group in line for a COVID-19 vaccine. 

SALEM — The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway in Oregon, but it could be months before farmworkers and others in the food sector receive a vaccination.

Health care workers are first in line. Phase 1a — the current phase — includes workers in hospitals, health care providers, residents at long-term care facilities, emergency medical service providers and first responders. The Oregon Health Authority, or OHA, estimates this includes between 300,000 and 400,000 individuals.

According to OHA, farmworkers will be eligible in Phase 1b — but they won't be first in line.

The group to receive first priority in Phase 1b will include childcare workers and K-12 school and school district staff statewide. According to Marc Siegel, spokesman for the state Department of Education, Oregon has about 80,000 K-12 staff and 30,000 early childhood education and childcare staff who would be eligible.

Siegel said vaccinations for these groups are likely to start in mid-to-late February. 

After school staff, others eligible in Phase 1b will include "workers who are in industries essential to the functioning of society" with "substantially higher risk of exposure."

Anne Marie Moss, spokeswoman for the Oregon Farm Bureau, told the Capital Press farmers, ranchers, farmworkers and others in the food sector should meet this definition.

But OHA has not yet decided which occupations will come first.

OHA has assembled a COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee to decide which populations will receive priority. The committee includes 27 representatives from health services, universities and groups representing marginalized populations. A representative from PCUN, a union for farmworkers, is on the committee.

In a Zoom news conference Friday, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told reporters the committee will recommend the rest of the priority groups by the end of January.

Several farm groups, commodity associations and food processing companies have sent letters to Gov. Kate Brown and OHA asking for their workers to receive high priority.

In a letter, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urged the governor to highly prioritize vaccines for "private sector workers from farm to fork."

James Schneider, president of Oregon Seed Association, asked the governor "to make our workers a priority."

But even if farmworkers move toward the front of the line, officials say it could be several months before they receive vaccines.

As of Sunday, just 2.5% of Oregon's total population has been vaccinated, and the state is behind schedule.

According to OHA data, Oregon was supposed to vaccinate 100,000 people by Dec. 31. As of Jan. 10, 104,595 vaccinations had been administered, 4,828 of which were second doses.

OHA says officials are developing plans to ensure that Oregonians will be able to access vaccine administration statewide.

As early as Tuesday this week, Oregon National Guard medics and other troops will arrive in Salem to help administer and coordinate vaccines.

According to Allen of OHA, both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being used. The Moderna vaccine is 94% effective two weeks after a person receives the second shot, and the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective one week after the second shot.

OHA has no plans to require the COVID-19 vaccination, but officials strongly recommend vaccination for the health and safety of the community.

Recommended for you