Protecting Iowa’s vulnerable farmworkers expands to include vaccinations

While COVID-19 vaccinations are well underway in Iowa, Claudia Corwin, MD, MPH, assistant professor in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Occupational Medicine, and associate medical director of University of Iowa Health Care’s Employee Health Clinic, has been working to help ensure one critical sector of the population is not overlooked — Iowa’s migrant and seasonal agricultural workers.

Corwin has been collaborating with medical anthropologist Kimberly Dukes, PhD, research assistant professor in Internal Medicine, experts from the College of Nursing, the UI Labor Center, and Proteus, a Midwest-based non-profit organization serving migrant and seasonal farmworkers for more than 40 years.

Photo credit: Naomi Marroquin, Iowa City Proteus Health Care Manager

As Corwin explains, COVID-19 testing and pandemic mitigation posed huge challenges for these workers and their employers. In the absence of federal requirements and state farmworker protections specific to the pandemic, it fell to Proteus and other volunteer advocates to lead mitigation and testing efforts. (Corwin described some of this work in a June 2020 Grand Rounds.) The complexity of these efforts now includes vaccine access, delivery, and acceptance.

Corwin, Dukes, and their partners are working to understand issues related to vaccine hesitancy in this population, to in turn provide credible and trustworthy messaging and education. They are also exploring the best communication methods for this traditionally hard-to-reach population, all with an eye toward broader applicability beyond COVID-19 efforts. One project currently underway is the creation of an education video presented in both Spanish and English. A vaccination event for migrant farmworkers, sponsored by a health center and Proteus, recently took place, the first of what is hoped to be many such events as farmworkers begin to arrive in Iowa for the season.

Planning for similar projects are also underway, including a pending grant application that should fuel more efforts. Later this month, Corwin and several collaborators will present their experiences with community health clinic responses to COVID-19 outbreaks at the National Center for Farmworker Health 2021 virtual conference.

Corwin explains, “My goals with migrant and seasonal farmworkers is to enable this population to access healthcare and public health services and to provide usable tools to advocate for themselves and their families as they help feed our country. The pandemic has made starkly evident what we have always known is true—there are deep health inequities hardwired into our society and I want to do my small part to address this age-old issue. I am trying to do this with basic boots-on-the-ground care as well as with usable research that can be translated to real-life applications.”

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