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Kansas meatpacking plants begin vaccinating employees

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:19 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) -Approaching a year since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Kansas, the state’s focus in its vaccine rollout includes placing meatpacking workers as a higher priority. Employees at the plants began getting first doses of the vaccine this week, including National Beef, which began vaccinating its workers Thursday afternoon (March 4.).

Similar to the effort for the state’s teachers, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly on Thursday announced that counties with meatpacking plants will get additional COVID-19 vaccine doses specifically earmarked for those workers. Governor Kelly said all meatpacking workers in the state who want to be vaccinated will have their chance to do so by the end of next week.

Kelly said the past year has been especially difficult for high-contact workers, including employees in meatpacking plants. Last year several large clusters of COVID-19 were identified in meatpacking plants in several Kansas counties.

The governor pointed out that many meatpacking workers are part of Kansas’ Hispanic and Latinx communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Kelly said this effort aims to close the disparity in vaccine distribution.

“Today’s announcement is another step in the right direction, just part of my administration’s commitment to an efficient and equitable vaccine plan,” Kelly said.

Kansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam pointed out that the livelihoods of thousands of Kansas farmers and ranchers depends on the health and welfare of meat-processing employees. He said farmers and ranchers said they want people who work in the plants ahead of them when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

“The world quickly learned that health beef-processing employees may be the most critical time and time-sensitive link in the whole food chain,” Beam said.

Latino and other minority groups have been part of the effort to ensure this would happen. Minorities make up a large percentage of those working in this field.

One of the groups seeking to vaccinate these workers was UFCW Local 2, the union representing meatpacking plant workers.

“We could not wait for newer strains of the virus to talk over and bring a second wave, or in these case, it would be like a fourth wave,” said Monica Vargas-Huertas with UFCW Local 2.

She added, ”Collective effort of many Latino and minority groups. We came together from different areas of the state and we were bringing our concerns and explaining why it was so important to go to these places in phase two first because these are workers that go every day that have been working for the past year fearing for their lives and the lives of their families and it was so important to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.”

The state is working with local health departments and the packing plants to administer the vaccine.

Monica Vargas-Huertas with UFCW Local 2 said in Dodge City, more than 80 percent of their members have said they will get the vaccine.

“Towns, like in Dodge City, Kansas where the meatpacking workers represent about 25 percent of the total population, so that’s why it was so important to prioritize,” said Vargas-Huertas.

The hope is by reaching minority communities this way, it will help encourage more to get the vaccine and ease concern.

She said, “As much as we get more people vaccinated they will feel more comfortable than now. We are already asking from family members (of these workers) saying ‘can we get the vaccine as well?’ So we know it’s going to replicate among their communities and their peers.”

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