NEW BEDFORD — A year ago, they were hailed as heroes, risking their lives for little pay in supermarkets, warehouses, and food-processing plants so Americans could stay well-fed and fully stocked during the deadliest pandemic in a century.
But now many essential workers, despite bearing an outsize burden of coronavirus infections, worry they have been forgotten in the rush to vaccinate an eager populace against COVID-19, as the state and federal government continually reprioritize who should have access to the coveted doses.
“We’re really feeling like we’re being left out,” said Adrian Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of immigrant workers.
A former fish house worker, Ventura has built a reputation in this coastal fishing city as a problem-solver among the immigrant workforce and a “piedra en el zapato,” or a stone in the shoe, to the seafood-processing plants that employ them. Lately, he has turned his attention to the local health department with one urgent question: When will our workers be vaccinated against COVID-19?
“People are very worried,” he added, speaking to the Globe through a Spanish interpreter. His organization alone has recorded coronavirus infections in more than 280 local families and at least nine deaths in connection with the local fishing industry.
“This has been very hard because for those who remain, who is going to pay the rent, buy food, or pay for the funeral?” Ventura said. “People have ended up with big hospital bills.”
Massachusetts initially prioritized essential workers early in the second phase of its vaccination plan, which began Feb. 1. But in late January, Governor Charlie Baker moved residents 65 and older, a cohort of more than half a million people, to the front of the queue in Phase 2, alongside people with two or more qualifying conditions. Now the state is opening up eligibility to teachers, child-care workers, and other school staff in keeping with a new Biden administration directive to inoculate all educators with their first dose by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the decision to move up teachers has intensified the jockeying for priority among essential workers, including MBTA and grocery store employees.
The plight of essential workers in Massachusetts reflects the tension and tradeoffs all states are grappling with in their pursuit to distribute their limited supply of shots. While the front-line workforce is more susceptible to COVID-19 infection, prioritizing seniors will reduce severe illness and deaths, said Jessica Leibler, an environmental epidemiologist at Boston University. But, assuming the vaccines can curb the spread of the virus, as limited data suggests, “community transmission will likely persist until more essential workers are vaccinated,” Leibler said.
An expert panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states prioritize front-line essential workers for the vaccine — along with people 75 and older — following health care personnel and long-term care facility residents. They should be followed, the panel advised, by adults 65 and older and those with underlying conditions.
The panel, known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, defines essential workers as those whose jobs are not only critical to the functioning of society, but put them at high risk of contracting the virus. The panel’s guidance, however, is nonbinding, and states have some latitude in deciding who to give the doses to first.
New York, for example, has opened vaccine eligibility to food and grocery store workers, public transit employees, and hotel staff. California is now offering vaccines to its half a million farmworkers. Massachusetts, meanwhile, supplied vaccines to first responders, including police and firefighters, in the first phase of the rollout.
Essential workers also are disproportionately immigrants and people of color, which may partly explain the gaping racial and ethnic disparities in the disease’s outcomes. According to the CDC, Black and Latino patients have been hospitalized for COVID-19 at roughly three times the rate for white people. Their COVID-19 mortality rate, the CDC found, is about twice as high.
For essential workers of color, the risks are compounded by a confluence of factors, said Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of the racial equity and health policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation. They are more likely to live in shared or multigenerational households, for example, where it’s nearly impossible to isolate the sick from the healthy, and they don’t have the luxury of calling in sick from work without jeopardizing their livelihoods.
Carlos Panjoj, a 30-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who works for Ketchum Supply in New Bedford, said he’s lucky compared with other workers in the city’s seafood sector. At the start of the pandemic, Panjoj’s company gave him masks and gloves, and required social distancing at work. His supervisor told him if he felt sick, he could take off as many days as he needed.
But paid sick leave is a rarity in this industry, said Panjoj, who has been monitoring conditions at the seafood-processing plants as an organizer for Pescando Justicia. In April, Pescando Justicia, a coalition of local fish house employees working with Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, sent a letter to more than 30 New Bedford seafood-processing plants, urging them to address overcrowding, insufficient personal protective equipment, and poor sanitary practices in their facilities.
Panjoj said conditions at the plants have largely improved, but some workers are still anxious.
“They’re scared and nervous,” Panjoj said through an interpreter, “and they don’t trust other people or the people they work with.”
Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the New Bedford-based Immigrants’ Assistance Center, said the state’s current process for securing a vaccination appointment requires immigrant workers to jump too many hurdles. Many lack a reliable Internet connection and have no means of traveling to the nearby mass vaccination site in Dartmouth, she said. For those who are undocumented, fears abound about whether their personal information will be shared with federal immigration authorities.
“We want to make sure the process for vaccinations is very easy — no questions asked — because that’s how you’re going to get people vaccinated, and at the same time, [we need to make] sure it’s trusted members of the immigrant communities that are passing the message,” she said.
Yet even access to information about the vaccines poses a challenge. New Bedford is home to thousands of Central American immigrants, many here illegally. An estimated 5,000 are, like Ventura, indigenous Mayans from the western highlands of Guatemala and their native language is K’iche. Many K’iche speakers cannot read or write in any language, Ventura said, so he has taken to recording videos of himself on Facebook Live, speaking both Spanish and K’iche to educate community members about the virus and vaccines. His videos routinely rack up hundreds of views. He’s recently approached the director of New Bedford’s health department about getting vaccinated on Facebook Live to set an example and dispel any misgivings.
It’s a heavy responsibility that Ventura said he’s been forced by the state to shoulder.
“The government isn’t worried about the Central Americans here,” Ventura said. “They worry even less about the Indigenous people.”