An agriculture worker in Yolo county receives his COVID-19 vaccine.
A truck full of workers from a honeybee farm pulls up to a rural COVID-19 vaccination clinic. In the bed of the truck are several beehives and the truck is surrounded by a cloud of bees. The EMTs working the clinic are visibly nervous, backing away from the truck and its ‘passengers.’
Amused and unfazed, a man in the truck jokes in Spanish, “Hey don’t be scared, you’re going to sting us, let us sting you!”
This is Yolo County.
Nestled in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, home to the University of California, Davis and largely rural and agricultural land, Yolo County has spent the past year fighting COVID-19 and finding equitable ways to vaccinate its diverse population. While some counties in the United States are faring better than others, Yolo has been one of the more successful ones.
As of early May 2021, the county had fully vaccinated 40 percent of their population, just edging out surrounding counties, including the state capital of Sacramento, Sutter, and Colusa counties with 32, 29, and 27 percent respectively. Outside of California, they’re also well ahead of other non-metro counties across the US, which are hovering around average rates of 28 percent of populations fully vaccinated. Yolo is advancing towards reopening safely, staying ahead of the curve, and has sustained low rates of infection.
So, what did they do right and how can other counties across the country learn from them?
Don Saylor, Yolo County Board Supervisor for District 2, attributes much of their success to the ‘Yolo Way.’ That, plus a team of dedicated county employees, volunteers, and partners who have worked tirelessly to ensure an equitable process and strategy from the very beginning.
Saylor, who was first elected in 2010, says that the ‘Yolo Way’ is engrained in how the community works, and it goes well beyond county employees, “It’s all about people stepping outside of their silos, doing right by other people, and working in partnership across our jurisdictional divides.”
Each spring, the county’s population balloons as migrant farm workers arrive from Central and South America to harvest the county’s farms, vineyards, and apiaries. Long considered a vital part of the county’s population, outreach to these communities had been established through a network of social services and outreach coordinators.
“Our connection with the farm workers isn’t incidental,” says Saylor.
Three years ago, the county conducted a review of farm worker concerns and issues and created the Farm Labor Coordinator position. The role is part of a county-wide push and commitment to better support the agricultural workers who ensure that there’s food on people’s tables. Esmeralda Garza, the current Yolo County Farm Labor Coordinator, has become an important trusted messenger in the agriculture worker community.
From creating welcome baskets for people arriving at the local migrant centres that include household supplies, face masks and hand sanitiser, to delivering food to workers in quarantine, and assisting with paperwork for those who don’t speak English, her role has been critical in the County’s outreach.
Responding to COVID-19 with Equity in Mind
When COVID-19 hit, the county was well-placed to address it equitably thanks to quick moving county representatives and their already strong connections.
“The farm worker community is an intrinsic part of the county. Our specialists started doing very early outreach during the pandemic, from getting lists from farm owners to understanding how many workers they expected that season and partnering with the farm bureau to double down on communications efforts,” said Jenny Tan, Yolo County Public Information Officer, who added that ensuring equity in their vaccine rollout was a top priority.
“These workers are on the farm sunup to sundown and early communication and collaboration with the farm owners was key to ensure that they knew we wanted to do this with them and for them,” Tan adds.
But the process wasn’t always that simple.
It began with getting farm owners on board and determining the most efficient strategy for reaching their workers. This is where Garza and the agriculture outreach team, which included the farm bureau and a local bee farmer, became crucial. The best strategy? Bringing the vaccine clinics directly to the farms and inviting surrounding neighbours to join. What began with a few of the larger farms in the area quickly grew once farm owners saw the positive response.
Once the farm owners were on board, they threw their full support behind the endeavour. They assured their employees they wouldn’t dock their pay if they left during the workday to get vaccinated and helped organize transportation to local clinics.
Despite this support, it was still critical to provide agriculture workers with clear, honest, and factual communications via trusted messengers. From the outset, county representatives knew that for many in the farm community, there were barriers around language, internet access, and for those who were undocumented, fears around signing up for anything with the government.
Addressing these barriers was at the forefront of the county’s plans and Tan adds that they wanted to ensure that no one had to sign up for anything, they just needed to show up. “I remember thinking, ‘We got this - this is going to be a great experience’. And it has been.”
As many of those who work at the county office will tell you, getting the agriculture workers vaccinated is not only an example of a successful communications strategy, but one that exemplifies collaboration across community and social organisations, farm owners, the farm bureau, and outreach specialists.
“The models that have proved to be successful in Yolo County are also ones that can be documented for future crises in Yolo County and beyond. There’s a lot to be learned here,” notes Ruth Berg, Head of Palladium’s Health Practice in the Americas.
“While these strategies have focused on the vaccine rollout, they’re also useful for addressing other inequities in marginalised communities. There’s a massive opportunity to not only apply these strategies to the public sector, as the County has done, but it also sets an incredible example for private sector organisations to truly step up and do what’s right for their employees and communities,” Berg adds.
One outreach specialist, Roberto Paniagua-Urrutia, has been on the ground since the beginning of the pandemic. From signing up agriculture workers for testing and vaccines to putting up posters and going door-to-door, he notes the importance of ‘confianza’, which he translates to trust or familiarity, throughout the process.
“Many of the farmworkers were really worried about the negative impacts or misinformation shared by friends and colleagues. Often, they’d ask me “esta vacuna te va a dar el coranavirus.” (will this vaccine give you Coronavirus?) or ask me if they were going to get really sick or what kind of side effects to expect.”
He adds that he would share his vaccination experience with them, coupled with information on what mRNA meant, and ensure they had an appointment to come back for the second shot. “Through conversation, with my personal experience, and answering any of their questions with data, these residents and agriculture workers began to trust the vaccine process because they had someone checking up with them and assisting them through it.”
According to Tan, this type of personal connection was crucial not just for building trust but for addressing vaccine hesitancy. “We’ve had our outreach specialists working in the community since the beginning. We know as a government entity, people have a tendency to mistrust us, and that’s okay, we’re not trying to be the be-all-end-all for residents.”
“Instead, we’re using trusted messengers, like Roberto and Esmeralda, to communicate with them. For some, it’s the Food Bank, for others it may be local famers, community members, or their pastor,” she adds.
From the small personal connections between individuals to the larger endeavours and mobile vaccination clinics, Saylor compares the county-wide collaboration to a flywheel. “Once the wheel starts turning, it engages with wheels nearby and before you know it, action is happening. Our program is a hybrid of big clinics in central locations and small mobile clinics where the workers are located.”
Just Getting Started
In two and a half months, Yolo County has administered at least the first dose of vaccines to 83 percent of their agricultural workforce of 6,800 workers, spanning more than 600 agriculture businesses in the county.
And this is just the beginning.
Whether it’s coordinating future COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, seasonal flu shots, or improving future outreach to their migrant communities, the county is looking ahead to how they can apply these lessons and new relationships with partners to different programs. According to Tan and Saylor, they’re already thinking about how to make the most of the funding from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package that will inject USD 1.9 trillion into the American economy.
For Saylor, it’s about ensuring that county organisations and networks receive funding to continue their critical work. “This is an opportunity to build on those collaborations that existed before COVID-19 and were essential to respond to it. We’ll continue to work on ensuring equity - this isn’t over.”
“There’s a level of collaboration that wasn’t there before, any competitiveness has gone away in the face of solving this huge problem together. We’ve come out of this with great strategies and tactics that work in real world situations and relationships that will assist us in the next phases,” adds Tan.
She notes that she doesn’t see COVID-19 going away any time soon. The story keeps evolving, as it has the whole year, from sheltering in place and further restrictions, to surges in cases, and now the vaccine and new variants, there will be plenty of opportunities for the county to apply what they’ve learned in the past year.
“But the most important strands throughout it have been the collaborations. The connections to our community members, and non-profits are all ready to roll up their sleeves and get the work done, that’s what has gotten us to this point of success.”
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