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Sonoma County wine industry has vaccinated over 95% of essential vineyard and production workers

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

More than 95% of Sonoma County’s 8,000 essential vineyard and winery workers have now been vaccinated, wine industry leaders announced Monday, the result of a coordinated effort with local health clinics that California’s top agriculture official lauded as a model for the state.

The campaign, which started in early February, will serve as a blueprint to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to other farmworkers in Sonoma County and could lead to long-term partnerships that improve the delivery of health care to the county’s field laborers long after the pandemic has subsided.

“The effort in Sonoma County by the agriculture and health communities to organize and vaccinate essential ag and production workers is a great model,” Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said in a statement. “The results of this vaccine campaign are most impressive, and it personifies Sonoma County and its agricultural heritage.”

The region’s two most influential wine industry trade groups, Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Vintners, launched their campaign to vaccinate vineyard and winery workers when local agricultural workers ― who have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic ― became eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines under state guidelines.

The two groups contacted community health centers to set up block vaccine appointments for workers, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. The clinics would inform the industry groups how many shots were available on a given day, and the trade groups would help individual grape growers and wineries sign up harvesting and production employees for vaccines.

The appointments started small, around 50 or 60 at a time, but soon grew to serve up to 600 people at one site on a single day.

“It became like a big puzzle,” Kruse said. “Every week we gained more momentum and had more success.”

Agriculture workers make up about 7% percent of the county’s coronavirus cases, behind only the construction, health care and service industries, according to county data. They often live in crowded homes and share transportation, which increases the chances of spreading the virus, underscoring the urgency for the wine industry to vaccinate its essential workforce.

John Balletto, president of Balletto Vineyards and Winery west of Santa Rosa, said all 90 of his workers have been vaccinated through the program with local health clinics. The company took workers to vaccination sites run by the West County Health Centers at schools in Guerneville and Sebastopol. Around 60 of his employees are seasonal guest workers from Mexico who live together in housing provided by the winery.

“It was very, very important that they get vaccinated right away because they live in such close proximity,” Balletto said.

Signing up for appointments was voluntary, but wine industry leaders say most workers have jumped at the opportunity. And those who were originally on the fence about accepting a shot eventually opted for the vaccine after seeing their co-workers receive it.

Kruse said the 95% vaccination rate for eligible workers is based on surveys the trade groups have conducted of grape growers and wineries in Sonoma County. There are about 6,200 vineyard workers and 1,800 wine production workers in the region, she said. Those numbers exclude office and hospitality staff who work in the wine industry, though some employees not involved in harvesting or production did receive leftover vaccines on a case-by-case basis, Kruse said.

Sonoma County spokesman Paul Gullixson was not able to confirm the number of vaccinated workers in the wine industry, but described the campaign as a “very successful team effort.” The county works closely with health clinics to determine how to allocate vaccine doses.

Wendy Young, executive director of the Sonoma County Medical Association, said her nonprofit last week gave final doses to over 1,200 vineyard and winery workers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. Workers from across the county were bused to the clinic, which was staffed by bilingual personnel to help Spanish-speaking recipients through the vaccination process.

Young hopes vaccinating local wine industry workers, many of whom are Latino, will help reduce any reluctance to accept the vaccine that may exist in Hispanic communities that have long lacked adequate access to health care.

“Hopefully after getting this group vaccinated, they’re going to go back to their community and show that they’re OK,” Young said. “If we can show, ’Look, a lot of your friends and family who live and work with you got it,’ maybe we can allay some of the fears that are out there.”

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The encouraging vaccination progress in the wine industry comes as Sonoma County still lags behind inoculating its Latino population at large. Latinos, who comprise 27% of the county’s population, accounted for only 16% of the people who had received at least one vaccine dose by Monday, according to county data.

County officials have pledged to address this inequity by continuing to coordinate with local heath centers, who serve low-income residents and have set up mass vaccination centers to target disadvantaged communities. State officials have also set aside 40% of California’s total vaccine supply for its poorest ZIP codes, although none are located in Sonoma County.

Zeke Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, an advocacy group for local Latinos, applauded the wine industry’s vaccination effort but said the 95% rate doesn’t account for unemployed farmworkers and migrant laborers who often travel from out of state and have yet to be immunized.

“They’re talking about regular seasonal employees, and that’s great, but how about the migrant farmworker and how about the people who are waiting to go back to work?” he said.

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, aims to speed up vaccinations for vulnerable agriculture workers by using the model established by the wine industry. Only about 26% of local agriculture workers have received immunizations, Tesconi estimates. Her organization is acting as a “clearing house” for local farms, dairies, creameries and meat processors.

“Now that the growers and vintners have pretty much gotten through their employees, we’ll be taking over that direct contact with the health centers,” Tesconi said.

Kruse said she’s hopeful the relationships the county’s agriculture industry is forging with local health clinics will have a lasting impact for workers beyond the pandemic.

“We’re looking at, how do we take this model and be proactive with health care for vineyard workers in the future?” she said. “That could support better health care going forward for our entire community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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