Nursery gives workers a shot in the arm
The rolling hills in the bucolic farmlands just outside Boring with big, green farm equipment rumbling down country roads seem like an unlikely place for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. But on a recent warm, sunny afternoon, farmworkers and their families lined up at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. to get a shot in the arm.
This workplace vaccination clinic was organized by Schmidt & Son, a huge wholesale tree nursery, where most of the workers are Latinx.
Although it was in the works for about two months, the clinic happened as public health agencies are coming under increasing criticism for the lack of vaccination efforts with the Latinix population, which has high rates of COVID-19 infections and low vaccination rates.
The Schmidt nursery didn't wait around for help.
"We feel it is necessary to help stop the spread and give our workers and their families a chance to get the shot if they choose to," said Sam Barkley, high forest farm manager, whose grandfather founded the tree business 75 years ago.
"Many of them have a hard time using a computer and have trouble when trying to sign up, so we decided to take time out to help," Barkley said.
The company offered the vaccine to all its 500 employees, their family members who are 18 years or older and the employees of smaller nurseries nearby that might not be able to organize such an effort.
"We're thrilled to be able to do this for our employees," said Pam Evans, J. Frank Schmidt's human resources manager.
After registering at a table outside a big, cool barn-like building, the nursery workers came in one-by-one or in small groups, sat at one of four vaccination stations and rolled up their sleeves. A Costco pharmacy staffer swabbed their upper arms and gave them a quick stab with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
After the shots in the big, timbered building called Cooler 1, the nursery employees took their place on distanced white plastic chairs for the 15 minute wait to make sure they didn't have a bad reaction to the vaccine.
A substantial majority of Schmidt's employees are Latinx. The Latinx population in Oregon has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than other groups. Statistics from the Oregon Health Authority show that although Latinx people are only about 13% of Oregon's population, they account for one-third of COVID cases. They've gotten only 6% of the vaccines statewide and that gap will hinder overall immunity in the population.
In addition, agricultural workers have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The state has recognized this and is distributing more vaccines to agencies that serve Latinx people and agricultural workers, but advocacy groups say it has been slow in coming.
Tony DeFalco executive director of the Latino Network said Thursday advocates want to "express frustration with the pace of vaccination of the Latinx community and we call on the federal government, the state government and the health systems to continue to work with us to accelerate Latinx vaccination."
Evans said Schmidt inoculated about 400 people, including 300 of their employees, during the day-long clinic. They had initially planned for a two-day vaccination effort, but they were scheduled to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was "paused" right before the clinic was scheduled.
The health care providers turned on a dime and were able to supply the two-dose Moderna vaccine instead.
"We take the health of our employees very seriously," Evans said. "And we knew they wouldn't have an opportunity otherwise."
Evans explained that "our employees are not going to the Convention Center. They're not online and won't drive to the Convention Center" or other mass vaccination sites. Also, it would be easier and more comfortable for them to be vaccinated in a familiar place.
She said many don't speak English or Spanish, but indigenous languages and some have trouble with reading and writing in any language.
"We can help them with the forms. They'll not get that everywhere," she said.
DeFalco said the current vaccination systems have barriers for Latinx folks including requests for identification and proof of insurance, sites that are unfamiliar to the Latinx community, mistrust of mass vaccination sites and the presence of law enforcement at sites.
The nursery has had cases of COVID-19 among its employees and wanted to do what they could to make sure there were no more.
The nursery employees often work in close proximity to each other and some live in multi-generational households with family members that also have high-risk jobs, putting the nursery employees at higher risk for COVID-19. J. Frank Schmidt & Son also offers the flu vaccine to all employees every fall too.
Evans said she started organizing the vaccination day about two months ago. The company first contacted the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the group had an online meeting. OAN suggested the nursery start by first contacting their health care provider to see about setting up a vaccination clinic at the nursery.
"Providence is our medical provider. They said 'absolutely, we'd love to,'" Evans said.
Providence works with Costco on vaccinations, she said, "and they (Costco) were amazing."
The nursery management said they didn't pressure employees into getting a vaccine. "We made sure they understood that this was not mandatory. But, we gave them information on COVID and on the vaccine," Evans said.
The Costco pharmacy employees said they also had done workplace vaccination clinics at Bob's Red Mill and Dave's Killer Bread.
Watching as the masked nursery workers checked in in for their vaccines, Evans observed with a sigh, "COVID is not over."
About J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
This 75-year-old wholesale tree nursery grows, harvests and ships more than 1.5 million trees every year.
Headquartered near Boring, the firm has multiple farm locations, totaling about 3,000 acres.
They sell worldwide more than 500 varieties of trees including serviceberry, elm, maple, oaks, beech and conifers.
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