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Critical workers in food-supply industry still waiting on chance to get vaccine

Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 6:45 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Essential workers across Kansas, including firefighters, paramedics and teachers are starting to get their COVID-19 vaccines, but other critical workers at places like grocery stores and meatpacking plants haven’t yet had their chance. Those workers were deemed “essential” nearly a year ago when the pandemic began, and they’ve worked non-stop since then. Now, more than a month into Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, essential workers in several industries still don’t know when it’ll be their turn to get the shot.

When the pandemic began and most businesses shut down, Kansas meatpacking plants and grocery stores kept their doors open.

“They have been working and fearing for the lives of them and their families from Day 1,” said United Food and Commercial Workers (Union) District Local 2 Political Director Monica Vargas-Huertas.

These essential workers make sure the food supply chain runs smoothly, even if that means putting themselves at risk.

“Within Phase 2, they’re giving priority in the state immunization plan to the high, at-risk contact workers. And there is no other worker that is higher contact than these meatpacking workers and others in the food-supply industry,” Vargas-Huertas said.

Processing plants are Kansas’ third largest source of COVID-19 outbreaks, after long-term care facilities and correctional facilities. Vargas-Huertas said that’s why they should be a top priority in getting vaccinated.

“It is impossible to practice social distancing. You have 700 or 800 workers at the same time, working the same shift,” she said. “Then comes the change of shifts, making it more difficult to enforce social distancing.”

Meatpacking and grocery store workers were originally second in line for the COVID-19 vaccine after healthcare workers and long-term care residents, but vaccine distribution has changed since December when that plan was created. Vaccine supply is also an issue. Vargas-Huertas said in order to get these workers vaccinated, it’ll take coordination between the packing plants and local, state and federal governments to find enough doses.

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