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Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Southwest Center faculty hit the road to educate workers on COVID vaccines

By: Matt Pedersen

(HOUSTON Vaccine education infographic– Jan. 13, 2022) The Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH) supports research, education, and outreach in occupational and environmental health. Accordingly, SWCOEH faculty have taken opportunities to support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccines became available to the American public in spring 2020. While many quickly made appointments to get vaccinated, others were more cautious due to a variety of reasons, partially based on the suddenness of COVID-19’s appearance as a global pandemic and apparent newness of the vaccine development. In reality, the long history of vaccine research using messenger rna (mrna) that was eventually used in the COVID-19 vaccines began in the 1970s. Vaccine development continued to expand as result of repeated coronavirus pandemic outbreaks including Sudden Acute Respiratory Virus (SARS) in 2003 and the Middle East Respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012.

Through Jan. 21, 2022, Southwest Center faculty have provided on-site training to over 1,000 workers and 28 businesses across PHR6 (Region VI - South Central Public Health Training Center) on keeping workers and customers safe, returning to work, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and provided consultations.

Southwest Center faculty have worked with 15 health and non-health community partners to facilitate over 60 on-site clinics in small, medium, and large employers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, reaching out to nearly 3000 workers.

Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, MPH, an Assistant Professor and Director of the SWCOEH Outreach Program travelled across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, visiting dairy farms, produce farms and sheds, food processing plants, and construction machine companies such as Tyson Foods and Caterpillar Inc. to answer questions directly from concerned and undecided employees.

“My biggest takeaway after hundreds of conversations, in English and Spanish, is that people want to be heard,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “They want their concerns and fears heard without harsh judgement or critique. I learned, most importantly, to listen and educate with compassion and respect. Every worker is unique so we have to be able to meet them where they are.”

With support from William “Brett” Perkison, MD, MPH, the SWCOEH’s Occupational Medicine Residency Program Director, and David Gimeno, PhD, the Center Director and Occupational Epidemiology Program Director, Dr. Rodriguez helped facilitate over 65 on-worksite vaccine clinics for more than 2,837 agricultural workers and their families.

“We aim to make a difference to the quality of people’s life and, with Dr. Rodriguez leadership, we are fulfilling the purpose of our center, to empower workers and their communities so they can attain their well-being goals in work and life,” said Dr. Gimeno. “All this work has a positive impact in the lives of the wide community of workers we serve.”

“I was struck by the respect that each of the employees had for our research group during our time at the plant,” Dr. Perkison said. “Despite the fact that they were being told to see us – total strangers from out of state – they were all willing to hear our viewpoints on the benefits of the vaccine and share with us their perspective on why they hadn’t gotten it yet. In most, there was a genuine sense of appreciation that we were there. There is truly a benefit to present the latest information on vaccines in the form of one-to-one counseling at the employee’s workplace in order to give them an opportunity to be heard and discuss concerns.”

Tyson Foods announced a vaccine requirement for its employees in August 2021, signaling the largest U.S food company to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce. The company announced in October 2021 that 96 percent of its active workforce -- nearly 60,000 workers – were vaccinated.

In a memo to staff, Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie King celebrated the accomplishment, writing, “And it’s due entirely to all of you: we hit this number thanks to the many, many thousands of individual conversations. To the laser focus of our operational leadership, health and safety and HR teams – and in particular, the leaders at our facilities. And not least, it is thanks to the dedication and courage of thousands of our team members, who stepped up and signed up to keep themselves, their families and their communities better protected against this deadly virus…I have also received many notes from team members who have helped convince others in their family, and in their community, to get vaccinated. Wherever you live, if you are one of these people, know that you have made your community safer.”

The SWCOEH provides a variety of graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health®. For more information, visit the SWCOEH website.