Throughout the pandemic, RS, a janitor at Tyson Foods in Dakota City, Nebraska, worked 5 to 6 p.m. to keep the building clean and safe for her co-workers.
The 39-year-old woman, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 2015, has been working in the meat-packing plant since September 2018. When Covid-19 began to spread across the country last spring, she said the plant and its employees were unprepared for the impact the virus would have.
“Everyone thought, ‘No, not here.’ People were in denial. They didn’t want to use the masks, back in the days when it wasn’t mandatory, but rather optional, ”said RS, who didn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly about the company using his full name. . “Just in the area where I work, about five people have died.”
The factory briefly suspended production last May to deep clean the facility after a number of employees tested positive for the virus.
RS said conditions have improved significantly inside the factory since the outbreaks last spring.
“Now I can tell you that I will work with peace of mind. We have access to masks. We have access to gloves. We have access to [cleaning] alcohol, ”she said.
NBC News has contacted Tyson Foods to learn more about how many of its employees have been affected by the virus, but a company spokesperson declined to comment on the numbers.
The company said in a statement that it “takes care of our team members” and “continues to do its best to stay ahead of this difficult and ever-changing pandemic.”
Local reports, published last spring but not independently confirmed by NBC News, said 786 employees tested positive and four employees died from Covid-19.
As Nebraska works to improve conditions for workers at the state’s many meat packing plants, public health officials have focused on vaccination.
“I’m very scared”
RS, who is the main supplier to her family of five and who helps support her mother in El Salvador, is afraid of taking the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I’m very scared because I’m the one supporting my family,” she said. “If I get sick, if something happens to me, who will take care of it?” I start to think, if I get this vaccine and die, what am I going to do? What are my kids going to do? “
RS said much of his information regarding the Covid-19 vaccine came from Facebook, which has been slow to respond to the misinformation surrounding the virus and the vaccine. She said many of her colleagues and friends had similar concerns and did not plan to get the vaccine once they were eligible.
Public health officials and community advocates are working to combat this reluctance, targeting awareness-raising efforts aimed at the Latino community, which is predominantly immigrant. These include question-and-answer events hosted through their social media accounts, where attendees can raise questions and concerns with local health experts.
Roxana Cortes-Mills is a management lawyer at the Immigrant Legal Center in Omaha, a non-profit law firm that works with low-income immigrants in Nebraska. She said her company is using the organization’s education wing to host virtual events with local medical providers.
The organization also has a legal helpline that answers questions about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and reassures callers that immigration status does not prevent access to the vaccine.
“We’re also working on creating … informational materials that can be shared with the community so they can have their questions answered,” Cortes-Mills said,
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while 7 in 10 Latino adults said they would get a vaccine, 43% said they planned to wait and see how the vaccine worked for other people before. to procure it themselves. Eighteen percent said they definitely wouldn’t get it, and 11 percent said they would only get the vaccine if they were required to. About 1 in 5 Latino essential workers said they would not get the vaccine and a similar number said they would only get it if their employer demanded it.
Public health officials are concerned about these trends as Latinos have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 – they are three times more likely to be hospitalized and more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than non-Latino whites, according to recent data.
A place of “trust”
While immigrants make up 17% of the US workforce, they make up 22% of all workers in the US food industry and 37% of employees in the meat processing industry, according to the Migration Policy. Institute.
“We want to continue to encourage our… immigrant families not to be left behind [throughout] this pandemic, ”said Karina Perez, executive director of Centro Hispano, an immigrant advocacy organization in Columbus, Nebraska.
Perez explained that it was imperative for public health officials to work with trusted organizations like Centro Hispano, especially when it comes to debunking misinformation about the virus and the vaccine.
The most common questions relate to the effectiveness of the vaccine and possible symptoms after receiving it. The organization distributed leaflets in Spanish created by the University of Nebraska Medical Center that cover a range of topics, such as the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, even after receiving a vaccine.
“We have had clients who have had their issues insured and who have ended up signing up for the vaccine,” Perez said.
Centro Hispano is running a vaccine registration campaign for clients at its Columbus office on March 14, and staff will help people register for the vaccine.
“We hope this will allow them to go to a place they trust and register, with some help,” said Perez, noting that the campaign will start in the morning and end in the late evening.
“We hope to see an upward trend in receiving more vaccinations,” Perez said. “They’re not signing up, and I think that’s something we see as a trend nationwide.”
Chuck Sepers, director of health for the Central East District Health Department, which serves Boone, Colfax, Nance and Platte counties, said the department’s partnership with Centro Hispano has helped health officials public to understand the specific needs of the Latino immigrant community in the counties.
When the state’s immunization website launched, it was only in English. Now, vaccine information is available in English and Spanish, and call centers are staffed with bilingual staff.
Sepers said the health department was working directly with meat packing plants to understand the reasons for the reluctance to get vaccinated, helping them adapt culturally appropriate messages in Spanish.
“Trust is an integral part of this process,” Sepers said, “using native speaking medical providers to discuss vaccine safety is therefore an important part of this discussion.”
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts may have hampered efforts to reach immigrant communities in the state after he said at a press conference in January that undocumented workers at meat-packing facilities state would not be included in the state’s immunization rollout.
The governor’s office quickly returned to these comments, clarifying that the state’s vaccination plan would instead prioritize citizens and legal residents. But lawyers said his comments were enough to amplify the fear and confusion in the Nebraska immigrant community.
The objective is “to put needles in the weapons”
Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with Children of Smithfield, a Nebraska-based advocacy group, said many factory workers in her community of Crete – regardless of their legal status – were already suspicious of the vaccine rollout plan; she said the governor’s comments only made them more suspicious.
“There are still confidence issues as to whether it is safe and effective or not and there are … a lot of people are hesitant to get vaccinated,” Castañeda said. “When you have a person like the governor of Nebraska who is in a position of power sending the message that undocumented people are not eligible [the] vaccine – I think it’s damaging and it creates even more fear. ”
Advocates across the state say they are continuing to raise awareness to allay fears surrounding the process.
“Our goal is really to put needles in the arms,” Sepers said, noting that his department is only collecting the information needed to make sure residents come back for their second dose of vaccine.
Cortes-Mills said the vaccine is of benefit to the Nebraska community as a whole. “The more people we immunize, hopefully, the sooner we will end this pandemic.”
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