As the daughter of Mexican immigrant and migrant farmworkers, Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, MPH, knows first-hand the challenges faced by farmworkers and their families. Formerly a student, now an assistant faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences (EGHES) at UTHealth School of Public Health’s San Antonio campus, her research works to improve the safety, health, and wellness of farmworkers in rural Texas. Dr. Rodriguez focuses on topics like hazardous working conditions, lack of essential healthcare services, and cultural or language barriers—all multifaceted problems which grew more complicated as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on.
As part of a larger effort by the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health to help provide industry-specific guidance for COVID-19 safety protocols, Dr. Rodriguez and fellow EGHES faculty member David Douphrate, PhD, began hosting informational webinars, which offered farmworkers a safe, accessible platform to ask questions and learn practices to mitigate transmission of the virus on their farms. Once vaccines became available, they quickly expanded their efforts to include COVID-19 vaccination outreach.
In partnership with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Public Health Region (PHR) 1 in Lubbock and Texas Christian University (TCU) Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences in Fort Worth, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Douphrate worked to roll-out vaccination clinics on dairy farms throughout Texas. First, they staged pre-clinic sessions that provided farmworkers with information on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine so they could make an informed decision about whether or not to get the vaccine. “Vaccine hesitancy is real. However, it’s our job to provide people with accurate information because there’s a lot of mistruths and misinformation out there,” said Douphrate.
After the pre-clinic sessions, Texas DSHS PHR 1 traveled to the farms to administer the vaccines, and through this initiative, vaccinated more than 500 dairy farm workers and their families in the Texas Panhandle and over 50 dairy farm workers in Erath County with the help of TCU faculty members Carol Howe, PhD, RN and Danielle Walker, PhD, RN. “This is true academic-industry partnership. This is the way it’s supposed to work. Rural Texas is in just as much need as the large urban areas and we need to make sure our efforts are felt there, too,” said Douphrate.
Looking to replicate the success seen in the Panhandle, Texas DSHS PHR 11 invited Drs. Rodriguez, Douphrate, and Melissa Valerio-Shewmaker, PhD, associate professor and associate dean of faculty affairs, development and diversity at UTHealth School of Public Health’s Brownsville campus, to facilitate their vaccine roll-outs in the Rio Grande Valley among seasonal farm and shed workers. Other health services agencies active in the Valley, including the US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH), La Union del Pueblo (LUPE), Texas Rural Legal Aide (TRLA), and the Migrant Education and Family Support, also lent their expertise and resources to the vaccination efforts of over 500 farmworkers and their families. This “all hands on deck” approach was particularly vital to the roll-out success, as unlike the dairy industry, which is non-seasonal in nature, agricultural farmworkers in the Valley travel throughout the year following crop harvest schedules. Time was of the essence.
“Health service agencies in the Valley have really caught on to the on-worksite vaccine clinics and making them readily available for farmworkers and their families. There’s a five-to-six week window of harvest before these families start migrating out of the Valley following crops. Giving them access to vaccines during this sensitive window is crucial so that we don’t miss them,” said Rodriguez.
The vaccination efforts in the Panhandle would have proved much more arduous and time-consuming, if it weren’t for the years-long relationships Drs. Rodriguez and Douphrate established with dairy farm workers and owners as part of their research. “I appreciate that the dairy farm owners turn to us when they need advice, help and expert opinions on worker welfare and safety. We’ve established ourselves as a trusted resource for information not just in Texas dairy, but in multiple large dairy producing states,” said Douphrate.
Through the support of the same local health organizations who shared their relationships and knowledge to make vaccination efforts in the Valley possible, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Douphrate are currently making in-roads in the agricultural sector, which has the highest fatality and injury rates of any manual industry. Looking beyond COVID-19, their goal is to serve as a trusted resource and reduce risk for agricultural farmworkers in the same way that they have for the dairy farm workers.
For now, Drs. Rodriguez and Douphrate are planning for future multi-agency vaccination efforts across the state in other farming communities. “I hope the relationship built between Texas DSHS, regional organizations, TCU, UTHealth School of Public Health and farmers is a lasting one. We all need this academic-industry-health partnership, because none of us can do this alone,” said Rodriguez.