Migrant Farmworker Vaccination Campaign Series: Post 1
Through a new partnership with the University of Vermont Extension, Bridges to Health Program, a team of medical students and residents have been fanning out across the state to vaccinate migrant farmworkers, first with the influenza vaccine in the fall and winter of 2020 and then with the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available in the spring of 2021. Their efforts have resulted in over 260 people receiving the flu vaccine on 53 farms across eight counties. To date, nine students and six residents – with support from the Vermont Department of Health – have administered over 300 COVID-19 vaccines. The organizations are working together for a common cause: to create more equal opportunities for health for workers who are critical to sustaining Vermont’s food system and agricultural landscape.
This is the first post of a 3-post series, written by Class of 2022 medical student Elena Martel, reflecting on her experience with the program.
Working with Bridges to Health for the migrant farmerworker flu clinic was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding experiences of my clerkship year thus far. I moved to Vermont from Boston, a bustling city with a diverse population, and was initially disappointed by the homogeneity of my new state. I’ve always had an interest in global health, and hope to implement it in my future career, so I was thrilled to be accepted to the global health program at UVM. My summer in Uganda allowed me to explore health care in another culture and refreshed my desire to work with populations beyond the “typical Vermonter” of Chittenden County. That being said, my clerkship year provided limited opportunities for diversity, until I was able to work with the Dr. Clements and Bridges to Health.
Getting out into the community was the first step in realizing the diversity that does exist in Vermont. Prior to this experience, I was unfamiliar with the migrant farmer population, and certainly did not realize how many obstacles they faced. It was eye opening to see the conditions that many of these workers live in, and easy to imagine the magnitude of healthcare needs unattended to. Visualizing the close living quarters on the farm allowed me to see how illness, such as the flu or COVID-19, could rapidly spread throughout this population. Additionally, I discovered how difficult it was for the farmworkers to access health care, whether that was due to a lack of transportation, or just a fear of detainment if they were to leave their property. The ability to travel throughout various counties and provide vaccinations door-to-door allowed us to overcome these barriers, albeit temporarily.
Giving vaccines feels particularly rewarding due to the continued risk reduction they provide. From a global health perspective, I often question the utility (or lack thereof) of providing temporary care. However tempting it may be to donate supplies, it’s important to recognize that this provides no long-term benefit as compared to education and preventive care. It’s frustrating when resources and follow-up are limited, an obstacle frequently encountered when working with underserved populations. A major benefit of vaccine clinics is that ideally there is nofollow-up, as sickness has been prevented.
I was pleasantly surprised to realize how willing every farmworker was to be vaccinated. In other populations, you encounter people who are hesitant to get vaccines, particularly seasonal flu shots. It’s frustrating to recognize that so many people who decline vaccinations are those who have easy access to healthcare if they do become sick, whereas many people who would like preventive care are unable to obtain it.