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For farmworkers, coronavirus information can be as hard to find as vaccines

Advocates push governor for a strategy to help people they see as vulnerable and forgotten.
Farmworkers surround Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, of Colectivo Arbol, while she distributes face shields and masks at a field in Plant City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. The organization donated about 150 face shields and masks to farm working families in the community.
Farmworkers surround Isaret Jeffers-Chávez, of Colectivo Arbol, while she distributes face shields and masks at a field in Plant City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. The organization donated about 150 face shields and masks to farm working families in the community. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 27, 2021

PLANT CITY — Ask anyone who’s trying to make an appointment for a coronavirus vaccine. It’s maddening.

So imagine how difficult it is if you can’t find contact information, you don’t have a computer — and you don’t speak English.

“We don’t know what to do or where to go,” said Amara Ochoa, 65, of Plant City, a member of a farmworking family who has tried unsuccessfully to make a phone appointment for herself and her husband Luis Agnon, 69.

Last week, 18 Florida groups that advocate for Hispanic immigrants in Florida sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking him to declare farmworkers a vaccine priority group, regardless of their immigration status.

“Like many other Americans,” the letter reads, “especially other essential workers, the farmworker community has suffered immensely due to COVID-19 since they are frontline workers.”

Even as they struggle for an appointment, Ochoa and Agnon harbor doubts about whether the vaccines are a good idea. Ochoa has heard they are not safe. A neighbor just told her they contain microchips to help locate and detain undocumented immigrants.

Still others wonder whether they qualify for the vaccine with DeSantis’ announcement Thursday that anyone getting a vaccine must first prove Florida residency. The answer, state health officials say: Yes, if they’re 65 or older and can produce a Florida driver license or ID card — or a document showing they’ve lived here in the last two months. This can include a utility bill, rental agreement or mail from a financial institution.

“You don’t know whether or not to believe what you hear,” Ochoa said in Spanish. “People are scared by everything they see and hear. This is making life difficult.”

Related: Why does coronavirus hit Hispanics harder? Reasons might be found in Wimauma.

The couple came to the United States illegally from Mexico more than 30 years ago and settled in Plant City. They rent a one-room house with the help of their three children, all farmworkers. Last June, both of them came down with coronavirus. The symptoms were mild, headaches and fever, but they linger.

“This is not just any disease,” Ochoa said. “It follows you for quite some time.”

Hispanics in Florida account for more coronavirus cases than their share of the population, 30 percent compared to 26 percent. But as the first doses of the two-dose vaccine are given out, only 9 percent have gone to people who are Hispanic — 101,772 of the 1.22 million recipients, the state Department of Health said.

Amara Ochoa of Plant City walks away with a face shield as well as masks for her family through a program run by nonprofit Colectivo Árbol of Tarpon Springs.
Amara Ochoa of Plant City walks away with a face shield as well as masks for her family through a program run by nonprofit Colectivo Árbol of Tarpon Springs. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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More than 457,000 people working in fields and groves have fallen ill with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a study by Microsoft and Purdue University. The four hardest-hit states are Texas with 48,968, California with 41,584, Missouri with 15,820 and Florida with 15,243.

The immigrant advocates said they’re still awaiting a response to their letter from DeSantis.

“It will be important to make it accessible and planned during times that are convenient for farmworkers,” said one of the advocates, Redlands Christian Migrant Association executive director Isabel Garcia. “We hope we are invited to the table as these discussions take place. However, we have not heard how or if vaccines would be made available to farmworkers.”

Related: Girl, 6, survived dangerous journey to US. She now is Florida’s youngest coronavirus victim.

Fear of deportation has always kept many undocumented immigrants from seeking health care, advocates say. The rapid spread of coronavirus puts this reluctance in sharp focus, making reliable information as important as getting people access to the vaccines.

“If more friendly people were here, in the fields, speaking to us in Spanish, many people would change their thinking,” said Enedido Contoral, 45, who has worked with his wife in the fields of Plant City for five years.

In Hillsborough County there are 237,000 people identified by the Census as Spanish speakers, 94,000 of whom said they speak English less than “very well.”

Farmworkers toss peppers into boxes at a field in Plant City.
Farmworkers toss peppers into boxes at a field in Plant City. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Isaret Jeffers-Chávez founded the nonprofit Colectivo Árbol (collective tree) to help communicate reliable information to Hispanic and farmworker communities across Central Florida.

“We talk about educating people as a priority, telling them that in prevention there is a way to combat this disease and stop its spread among people,” said Jeffers-Chávez, the daughter of Mexican farmworkers. Based in Tarpon Springs, her organization enlists farmworkers as volunteers.

Colectivo Árbol has been distributing masks and disinfectant since the start of the pandemic. Last week, working with other humanitarian organizations, the group gave out more than 150 masks to farmworkers and their families in Plant City along with bags of food and children’s clothing.

While working a field in Plant City on Friday, Enedino Contoral, 45, and his wife Leticia Contoral, 31, receive masks from Isaret Jeffers-Chavez with the Tarpon Springs nonprofit Colectivo Árbol.
While working a field in Plant City on Friday, Enedino Contoral, 45, and his wife Leticia Contoral, 31, receive masks from Isaret Jeffers-Chavez with the Tarpon Springs nonprofit Colectivo Árbol. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The absence of a more aggressive outreach to minority communities is one shortcoming in the state’s battle against coronavirus, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida.

“There ‘s been a lack of a strategic and tactical plan on the ground,” Wolfson said. “We have lived through a year of great misinformation, confusion and fear.”

The science around COVID-19 has been obscured by politics, by a push to minimize its danger, adding to confusion and fear, Wolfson said. This is especially true, he said, among Hispanic and African-American communities already skeptical of government.

“But that’s only part of the problem,” Wolfson said. “The other is that there are not enough vaccines.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen said the state is on a path to provide more vaccines and more information soon for Hispanic communities in the county. Cohen said he is speaking about it with county staff.

“There are complex and frustrating steps, but I’m sure there will be more resources in Spanish and more vaccines available to all,” he said.

Related: 500 vaccinated against coronavirus at Tampa church as state widens distribution

The Florida Department of Health has launched the Targeted Vaccine Area initiative in Hillsborough County, identifying 350 locations so far where vaccines can be administered, said spokesman Kevin Watler.

“The goal of this program is to get vaccines to seniors age 65 and older who live in underserved and concentrated areas,” said Watler.

DeSantis’ office has encouraged partnering with churches, for example, Watler said. The Health Department administered about 500 doses of the vaccine Sunday, Jan. 10, to members of St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa’s largely Black College Hill neighborhood.

At La Nueva Vision Pentecostal church in Tampa, pastor Luz Mindy Crespo is hoping for help, too, so she can expand education among her parishioners. Crespo holds weekly meetings in Spanish, attended by 20 or so people, and hears a lot of conspiracy theories about COVID-19, the vaccine and immigration status.

Pentecostal pastor Luz Mindy Crespo, with husband Ramon Crespo, organizes weekly meetings at her Tampa church to combat misinformation about the coronavirus vaccination and immigration status.
Pentecostal pastor Luz Mindy Crespo, with husband Ramon Crespo, organizes weekly meetings at her Tampa church to combat misinformation about the coronavirus vaccination and immigration status. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

“It is going to be important to set an example for other older people and Hispanic people who don’t know how to respond or what to do,” said Crespo, 68.

Along with her husband, Ramon Crespo, 80, she is waiting her turn for a vaccine. Still, the vaccine has caused division within her own family.

Her older sister, Carmen, 77, was vaccinated a few days ago without any problem. But another sister, Milagros, 68, is reluctant to make an appointment.

Crespo is confident that getting vaccinated is the right way to go.

“At the end of the day I think it’s not just a question of wanting or not wanting. It is an act of responsibility.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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