WASHINGTON, D.C. — The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway across the West, but it could be months before farmworkers and others in the food sector receive vaccination.
In most Western states, food and agriculture workers will be third or fourth in line for vaccines.
People 65 and older and people with pre-existing health conditions will come first.
The Trump administration originally advised states to put health care workers as the highest-priority group, but the Department of Health and Human Services announced sweeping changes to the plan Tuesday, urging states to prioritize aging people and those with underlying conditions.
Officials say it could take months to vaccinate these groups. Nationwide, about 53 million people are 65 or older and more than 100 million people have high-risk medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new policy created confusion among states that have been following their own timelines. Unless federal regulators decide to enforce the directive, states will maintain freedom to follow original plans. But officials say most states will likely comply with the new recommendations.
Oregon has been in Phase 1a of a four-phase plan, focused on vaccinating health care workers. The Oregon Health Authority, or OHA, estimates this includes between 300,000 and 400,000 individuals. As of Jan. 10, 104,595 vaccinations have already been administered to health workers.
Under the new plan, the state will move the 764,400 people aged 65 and older to the front of the line Jan. 23.
Oregon will simultaneously vaccinate remaining health workers, along with childcare workers and K-12 school and school district staff — about 110,000 people, according to the state Department of Education.
Then others in Phase 1b will become eligible, including “workers who are in industries essential to the functioning of society” with “substantially higher risk of exposure.” This would include the agricultural sector, but OHA has yet to decide which occupations come first.
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 California, under the new directive, people 65 and older — about 14.8% of the population — will get vaccinated first along with those with underlying health conditions.
Health care workers, about 2.4 million people, will either be second in line or vaccinated simultaneously, which is yet to be decided.
Then will come Phase 1b, which includes “essential” workers in the education, childcare, emergency services and the food and agriculture sectors.
Idaho is sticking close to its original plan. Gov. Brad Little late Tuesday announced that after health care workers, the state will prioritize teachers, school staff, first responders and some other frontline workers between Jan. 13-31 before making doses available to the 65-and-up population Feb. 1-15.
Starting mid-February, the state predicts vaccine rollout will begin for food and agriculture workers.
In Washington state, Tuesday’s directive won’t likely have a significant impact on timing. That’s because, prior to Tuesday, Washington’s health care workers were first in line and aging population second in line.
The new order will just reverse these two groups, and agricultural workers will likely remain in Tier 2 of Phase 1b — approximately third in line.
The Washington Farm Bureau says the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan has “failure written all over it.”
Agriculture has been working “diligently” to explain the importance of getting the entire agriculture workforce vaccinated as soon as possible, said Bre Elsey, associate director of government relations for the bureau.
She cited the state’s planned arrival dates, rollout dates and implementation delays.