PLANT CITY - Antonio Caterino has worked in the fields of Plant City picking strawberries, tomatoes and blueberries since he was 17 years old.
He does not have health insurance and doesn’t speak English. Like many other farmworkers who are exposed to unfavorable conditions, he has seen several friends fall ill and die because of the coronavirus.
“It has been depressing,” Caterino, 32, said.
When he learned that a local group was offering Johnson & Johnson vaccines to farmworkers and their families in Plant City, Caterino didn’t think twice.
“I said: This is my chance,” he said.
The one-day event at the Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center was a joint effort by Walgreens and Colectivo Arbol to help agricultural communities. The site was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and offered 400 vaccines.
“This couldn’t wait any longer,” said Isaret Jeffers, founder of Colectivo Arbol, a nonprofit based in Tarpon Springs.
The group has been organizing clinics and counseling in Central Florida during the pandemic.
“Farmworkers also deserve the chance to get vaccinated, without them there would be no food on our tables,” Jeffers said.
The event took place nearly two months after at least 18 Florida groups that advocate for Hispanic immigrants in Florida sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In Florida, where Hispanics make up 26 percent of the population, they account for about 30 percent of coronavirus cases. The letter was asking DeSantis to declare farmworkers a vaccine priority group, regardless of their immigration status. About half of all farmworkers are here illegally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but growers put the number at far more than that.
COVID-19 has taken its toll on people who work in fields and groves across the country, sickening some 541,000, according to a study by Microsoft and Purdue University.
On Friday the organizers also distributed information to keep farmworkers and their families safe.
Roberto Garcia, 32, has worked in the fields of Plant City since he was 18. He feared contracting COVID-19 and quit his job last year. He returned this season to pick strawberries.
“I’m here for my vaccine and honestly I really want it because I need to protect my family,” said Garcia, who arrived at noon. “I want peace of mind, and that peace of mind is now achieved by being vaccinated.”
Julian Ramirez, a 66-year-old farmworker, was one of the first to be in front of the main entrance at 9:35 a.m. Twenty-five minutes later his face lit up.
“It is true,” Ramirez said, showing his vaccination card. “I can’t believe it. I did it.”
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Ramirez said he had not been able to get vaccinated earlier this month because he was not sure where or when to do it. He was initially skeptical about the vaccines and their side effects, but after talking to some friends and family members all the fears were gone.
“I didn’t have a lot of information and when you’re working all day to make money, you have not enough time to think about it,” Ramirez said. “But today is like a miracle for all of us.”
Erin Loverher, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said a mass event to secure doses for essential workers is ‘one more way to remove barriers to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“With our nationwide footprint, pharmacist expertise and deep vaccine experience, we are administering vaccines in underserved communities across the state of Florida, including this vaccination clinic in Plant City,” Loverher said .
Caterino said having a vaccination site near the farms was also key. He said the feeling of confidence and security in getting a vaccine prompted him to call his 29-year-old brother, Alfredo, and encourage him to get vaccinated, too.
“It is a chance that I don’t want to waste,” Alfredo said while he was filling his registration form. “For me, health is the most important thing. It’s simple: If you are sick you cannot work.”
Frutuoso Cervantes, 80, and Antelma Espinal, 78, also were in line Friday. The couple, originally from Mexico, waited less than 30 minutes to be vaccinated. Both have close knowledge of working in the fields and the constraints many farmworkers face amid the pandemic.
“We did not know that we could have been vaccinated before but now we are happy, very happy,” said Cervantes. “It is the best gift we have been able to receive,” Espinal said.