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California’s essential workers get bumped down vaccination line

California’s essential workers get bumped down vaccination line

Picture of Mark Kreidler
Covid-19 vaccine line in Southern California.
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ed. Note: This article was produced by the journalism nonprofit Capital & Main, focused on inequality. It is co-published here with permission.

From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in America, the virus’s disproportionate effect on lower income workers, people of color and immigrants has been indisputable. Blacks and Latinos in this country are roughly four times more likely than whites to be hospitalized by the disease and three times more likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The logic line is easy to trace. Minorities and immigrants largely fill the employee rolls of such businesses as grocery and food service, from meatpacking plants to restaurants, and they don’t get paid if they’re not physically on the job, no matter the risk. These workers may then return to crowded living situations, some of them multigenerational, where the virus has further opportunity to spread. And they may lack access to decent health care – or any care at all.

Further, the notion of “essential workers” by definition takes in precisely those categories – the people who stock supermarket shelves, prepare food that others take home, labor on meat production lines and generally keep a pandemic nation fed.

Essential workers remain vulnerable to a virus that has thrived in a state with lax safety enforcement and a baffling county-by-county approach to openings.


So why are they being pushed further back in the queue for their vaccines in California?

That is the net effect of the most recent revisions to state policy by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has added all Californians over age 65 to the mix – the first step in a larger plan to reorder the state’s vaccination priorities entirely by age. Newsom’s two edicts, one on Jan. 13 and another last week, opened vaccinations to roughly 6.2 million residents who are 65 or older.

The idea is twofold. Dramatically expanding the candidate pool — in this case, by more than double — makes it likely that more available doses will actually go into arms, and California has had a problem with that. Even with significant recent improvement, the state has administered only about 4 million of the 6.44 million doses of vaccines it has received, placing California 35th among the 50 states.

Beyond that, nearly 75% of deaths related to COVID in the state have been among those aged 65 and older, according to the California Department of Public Health. “With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities,” said CDPH director Dr. Tomás Aragón.

“These are all tough trade-offs,” added Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. “The age factor is compelling – the correlation of age and hospitalization and mortality is off the charts for those over 50.”

But the upshot of this reorganization of priority is the addition of more than 6 million people to a tier – technically, it’s Phase 1B Tier One – that already includes those “at risk of exposure” in the areas of education and child care, emergency services, and food and agriculture. (The state has not finished vaccinating those in Phase 1A, health care workers and long-term care residents.) Wright said the reconstituted tier now comprises some 15 million Californians, millions and millions more than there are available doses of the vaccine.

Recent vaccination data suggests warning flags about racial disparities in access to the vaccine.

And as food-worker associations have repeatedly pointed out, those in grocery stores and food preparation jobs are at work most days, unable to stay on a phone for hours to schedule and then show up for a vaccination appointment. As a result, available slots are taken by those in the over-65 group, many of whom have the time to complete the task.

“Millions of working Californians, most of them people of color, have no choice but to leave their homes and work each day, exposing themselves, their families and their communities to COVID-19 and its devastation,” said Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, in a statement. Schoonover said the move to an age-based priority system defies statistical evidence that workplace transmission is a major source of the virus’s spread.

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Food workers also don’t know what will happen if, as many predict, Newsom’s administration begins the broader, age-based inoculation system before everyone in the current tier has actually received vaccines. It’s a concern that resonates with other interested groups, such as younger people with disabilities. But in the case of those on the food front lines, California is dealing with people whose jobs were deemed “essential” last year in order to ensure that they kept going to work, refilling grocery stocks and standing shoulder to shoulder in packing plants, among other things.

They remain on those jobs, and they remain vulnerable to a virus that has thrived in a state where lax safety enforcement and a baffling county-by-county approach to openings, closings and vaccines have hampered efforts to get enough vaccine and distribute it effectively. As former CDC director Richard Besser told The Washington Post, “We could end up vaccinating more people, while leaving those people at greatest risk exposed to ongoing rates of infection.”

The conversation about who should get vaccinated in what order is playing out across the country. Some grocers are offering paid time off or even bonuses to employees to encourage them to schedule and receive their vaccines – but whether the workers can do it depends entirely upon where they live and whether they’re currently part of a group or demographic approved to receive it.

There’s a racial element to all this, too. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the early vaccination data suggests that Black and Latino Americans are being vaccinated at numbers well below their rates of COVID infection and death, raising some “warning flags about potential racial disparities in access to and uptake of the vaccine.”

California’s results aren’t included there; the state has not publicly released its rates of vaccination by county, race or age. Instead, it is busy switching to the age-based model – the latest in a series of zig-zagging moves in the state’s effort to contain the virus and inoculate against it. Meanwhile, its food service workers, still essential, mask up and head out, bound for jobs that place them at daily risk of exposure, as they slide just a bit further back in the line for relief.


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