IMMOKALEE -- Local health care providers in Collier County have been working to ensure equitable access for minority groups in Immokalee to COVID-19 vaccines, trying to help families who have faced adverse conditions that make it difficult to receive adequate health care in the midst of the pandemic.
Collier County Department of Health collaborated with Partners in Health, Healthcare Network, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and other faith-based organizations to secure vaccinations for nearly 200,000 people across the county as of May 14, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Breanna Johnson, PIO Specialist for DOH-Collier, said these partners have provided “testing, vaccination, outreach and education opportunities in the community.”
From the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, more than 348,000 doses have been administered across the county, according to the Florida Department of Health’s Collier County vaccination report, including data through May 14.
Immokalee is home for many migrant farmworkers who often speak only Spanish or Creole, creating a language barrier for those interested in the vaccine, according to Julie Pedretti, Healthcare Network’s director of COVID-19 Community Relations. They often see illiterate patients as well who need to be walked through the registration process to understand potential side effects of the vaccine, said Pedretti.
Healthcare Network received funding from Health Resources & Services Administration in Spring 2020 to build a COVID-19 support team in the county, said Pedretti. She was hired to lead the team and immediately looked to partner with other area organizations, she said.
An unexpected benefit of the pandemic is how it “brought organizations together to serve a population that often gets neglected…” They “are now forged for the long term,” and will continue to support Immokalee and other farm communities in the future, said Pedretti.
Healthcare Network “is all about providing fair and equitable healthcare to everyone regardless of their ability to pay,” and setting up the support team was essential, said Pedretti.
They opened their doors to all, including the undocumented and the homeless. “There is no judgement. We just want people to get the care they need… We do not turn anyone away,” Pedretti said.
These organizations in Immokalee worked to provide testing as well as stipends and other resources for households whose positive tests hindered them from working.
Weekly vaccination events and pop-up clinics set up for Immokalee residents helped combat challenges and “target underserved communities,” Johnson said.
“Technology, transportation, and building trust” are a few of the primary challenges with vaccinating members of this community, Pedretti said.
The key to overcoming this was working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said Ms. Pedretti. The CIW is an organization founded by the farmworking community in 1993, which works to protect human rights within the workplace. This partnership allowed community members to feel more comfortable with Healthcare Network, said Pedretti.
The Healthcare Network team joined with PIH in the summer to participate in a hands-on training that gave them the tools they needed to “understand the culture that they’re working with,” said Pedretti.
“We accompany people along their health care journey and develop trust, and that’s a big thing — so knowing the language, knowing the culture, knowing the population,” she continued.
Many of these farmers’ lifestyles require long work hours during the day, so the team found ways to integrate COVID-19 outreach around their schedules, Ms. Pedretti said. Testing events and education took place in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate their needs, she explained.
DOH-Collier and its partnering organizations personally reached out to local growers and packing plants to set up days to vaccinate staff, Johnson said.
This poor agricultural area lies in stark contrast to the nearby city of Naples, one of Florida’s wealthiest cities. Nearly 42% of the population in Immokalee lives below the poverty level, according to the Guadalupe Center, a local organization that promotes education in the area.
Members of this community often lack the resources required to set up appointments for vaccinations, such as internet access or a laptop, so Healthcare Network took the time to reach out to residents by phone, said Pedretti.
“One other challenge is migrant farmworkers are always moving around, and many of them are headed north right now, so we wanted to get as many of the J&J vaccines as possible so that we would just have to do one shot,” Pedretti added.
These efforts have added to the on-going count of over 9.5 million people who have been vaccinated in Florida, according to the Department of Health COVID-19 vaccine summary.