Despite efforts by the state's meat processors and community organizers, many migrant workers in Arkansas, legal and otherwise, remain reluctant to sign up for a covid-19 vaccination.
Employers like Tyson Foods and Sanderson Farms say they are taking steps to educate their workers about the vaccines and plan to eventually supply them. Community organizers are also reaching out to immigrant communities, where the foreign-born, primarily lower-income residents speak little or no English.
They intend to help guest workers feel comfortable with the vaccine.
Meatpacking plants experienced numerous covid-19 outbreaks last year, leading to temporary closures nationwide. Data show that roughly 13,000 immigrants work in meatpacking plants in Arkansas, representing 36% of all workers in the industry. About 12% of the state's animal slaughtering and processing workers are in the country illegally, according to the Migrant Policy Institute.
Tyson said it plans to offer a vaccination to any worker who wants one and will administer the shots as soon as they are available. It is working with health partner Matrix Medical to carry out these plans and preventative steps, including testing thousands of workers per week for the virus.
But a reluctance to get a vaccination persists, mostly because of concerns that the vaccines were developed too quickly or are part of a scam.
A Tyson Foods worker in Springdale, who spoke Spanish and required a translator, said she plans to get the vaccine when it's available, however, she is worried about side effects or reactions.
"I'm concerned about how it's going to affect my body," she said, on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Co-workers say they don't want the vaccine because they are afraid of things they've read on the internet or heard on the news, she said, citing reports of a few deaths from allergic reactions to the shots.
Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United, an immigrant rights nonprofit, said workers' relatives will call from their home countries concerned about scams and other stories they've heard during the pandemic.
In general, Reith said, migrants are not "seeing enough of their faces that can testify that it's safe."
Research also shows that immigrants often forgo health care and social services because they fear interactions with public agencies. According to a study backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- the nation's largest philanthropy related to health -- different factors such as immigration status, limited command of English, stigma and marginalization, as well as stress associated with fear of deportation, play into that.
State governors have given mixed signals to immigrants about the availability of covid-19 vaccines. At a recent news briefing for meatpacking workers, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he did not expect that illegal immigrants would be part of the state's vaccination program. His communications director clarified in a tweet that immigrants in Nebraska will get the vaccine, but the state will prioritize citizens and legal residents before those without legal status.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in an email that the vaccination of migrant workers will likely be handled by employers, and it is presumed a workers' legal status has been documented. "We are relying upon private sector partners to distribute vaccines, and there is no current plan to ask them to verify immigration status," he said.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said she understood why politicians would want to sidestep the topic of workers in the country illegally and the vaccine.
Although data show that such workers live and work in Arkansas and other parts of the country, employers are required to screen workers for their immigration status before hiring. Gelatt said extensive paperwork that may expose workers is a real concern and may deter them from seeking medical help.
Gelatt said employers are unlikely to check on the immigration status of current employees.
Reith said Arkansas does not have a system to offer vaccinations to workers in the U.S. illegally, but that is something her organization would like to work on.
"Not having an ID should not disqualify someone from getting a vaccine," Reith said. If someone is turned away for not having a form of identification, that person can report the issue to the Arkansas Department of Health or seek help from nonprofits like Arkansas United. She said there have even been cases of people being turned away simply because they spoke Spanish.
"There is still much work to be done," she said.
Reith said her organization stays in touch with migrant workers in Blytheville, Dumas, Pine Bluff and other cities. She said she was surprised to find that many have no plans to get vaccinated. In response, she has been working alongside the Department of Health with outreach campaigns for migrant workers and other communities.
Health Department spokesman Danyelle McNeill said in an email Thursday that the goal is to get accurate information to workers in their primary language and to listen to concerns related to covid-19. "Current vaccine education outreach is statewide and encourages all members of the Latinx community to get the vaccine when they are eligible to do so," she said.
Marshallese communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. According to the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, more than 12,000 live in Springdale and the infection of rate for Pacific Islanders at one time was up to 4.5 times higher than the state average.
Some Marshallese are eager to get the vaccine, but there are those who are afraid or skeptical of it, said Benetick Maddison, a project specialist with the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale.
Historically, those fears stem from a mistrust in the American system, he said. Despite that, Marshallese elders are taking the vaccine.
"I'm pleased to see our elders are leading the way and setting an example for the rest of the community," Maddison said. "If we continue to see more of this vaccine accessible to the community, more people will take it."
At the onset of the pandemic, meatpacking plants became hotbeds for covid-19, infecting thousands of workers. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, 131 workers have died from the virus and 20,900 were infected or exposed to it.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracked even higher numbers, finding at least 45,000 reported positive cases tied to meat and poultry plants from at least 482 outbreaks in 38 states, with at least 239 deaths.
Since late March, meatpacking companies have invested millions of dollars to adjust operations and take steps to protect their workers, strengthening sanitation protocols, installing infrared temperature scanners, and socially-distancing workers.
Tyson Foods has spent more than $540 million to prevent the spread of the virus in its facilities, hired a chief medical officer to oversee a health staff of nearly 600, and plans to test workers at on-site health clinics at a few locations early this year.
The Springdale Tyson worker, who agreed to speak anonymously, said there are increased safety measures at the plant, such as masks, disinfectant, hand sanitizers and staggered shifts (a practice that limits the number of employees inside the building at one time), but she said social-distancing is an issue in hallways, break rooms and other tight spots.
"Every day you leave home with the fear of maybe getting infected at the plant," she said.