GONZALES — It’s a warm, breezy afternoon in the parking lot of Taylor Farms in Gonzales. More than 100 metal folding chairs, socially distanced 6 feet apart, are set up to face a white table where two women in matching scrub sets stand. Hard-hat-wearing workers begin to stream in, filling out the audience.
The agricultural workers are listening to a presentation from Hartnell College nursing program students on the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since January, students have been traveling from Salinas to San Juan Batista to Soledad to speak with farmworkers in settings much like this and combat the spread of misinformation on the vaccine.
“We are there to promote wellness,” says Sonja Sheppard, the associate director of nursing and allied health at Hartnell College.
On this particular day last week at Taylor Farms, Maite Alvarez and Claudia Garcia were the student volunteers addressing the crowd. They spoke in Spanish with rotating groups of workers throughout the afternoon. In Gonzales, more than 90 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the United States Census Bureau.
“We’re Hispanic,” Alvarez says of herself and Garcia. “For them to hear (the vaccine information) from a Hispanic, I feel like it’s important.”
Garcia concurs, saying it’s all about making the workers feel comfortable and keeping the tone of the presentations more conversational.
“If we’re humble and we come from where they come from, they just relate,” she says.
Though last week’s presentation was Garcia’s first day on the job, Alvarez says she’s done 11 presentations this month. She said the vaccine education program caught her attention because it seemed like crucial information everyone should know.
“It is really important to come and educate our community about the importance of getting vaccinated,” Alvarez says.
While the Hartnell students are spreading information on the benefits of a COVID-19 vaccine, a new initiative from the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas has begun vaccinating agricultural employees. The program, which was announced last week, is starting by vaccinating farmworkers 65 and older before expanding to all employees.
By educating thousands of farmworkers, Sheppard says the Hartnell nurses have increased the community’s interest in receiving the COVID-19 vaccination.
“Some of the fears have been dispelled, some of the myths have been dispelled,” she says.
Typically, the workers want to know if they can safely get vaccinated if they have other illnesses like diabetes (Alvarez says to consult with your doctor). Other common questions revolve around what kind of side effects they can expect from vaccination.
Sheppard says though they can’t promise there’s not going to be any sort of side effect from a vaccine — the CDC says the most common side effect is pain and swelling where it was received — they can at least provide good information so the workers can make educated decisions about vaccination.
“They’re better off with the mild secondary effects of the vaccine than with COVID,” says Garcia.
One of the biggest myths Alvarez and Garcia have said they’ve had to dispel is that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a live virus. Such a vaccine injects a weakened virus into the body so a person’s immune system will build a defense against it.
None of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines contain a live virus. Crucially, this means the vaccines cannot make you sick with COVID.
Sheppard says the student volunteers have educated thousands of agricultural workers thus far.
“I’m very passionate about (the students) supporting their community,” says Sheppard.
After their roughly 5-minute presentation of CDC-provided information on vaccine dosage and the benefits of vaccination, Alvarez and Garcia opened up the floor for questions.
The audience members were reticent, but after they were dismissed and began to file away, a few stragglers stopped to speak with the nurses.
Alvarez says some are just shy about expressing their concerns in front of everyone, but one of the afternoon’s members came to ask her directly what are the worst symptoms from getting the vaccine that she’s heard of. The moment shows the trust and comfort the farmworkers feel in approaching and speaking with the nurses — which is the kind of security the women are trying to provide and foster in their outreach.
“I just want them to know we’re regular people just like them,” says Garcia.
“I am very proud of our students, especially our Spanish-speaking students,” says Sheppard, who the coordinators of the program specifically asked to help because of the need for Spanish speakers.
“They’re paying it forward for themselves, for their family, for their children,” she continues.
“It just shows how important it is that we all use our resources and we all work together to make a big difference in the lives of not only the workers, but in everyone’s lives.”
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