A mass COVID-19 vaccination event took place at the JBS pork plant in Worthington. Credit: UFCW Local 663

Jake Velasco wasn’t yet working as a meatpacker last spring when COVID-19 tore through these facilities in Minnesota and across the Midwest. 

But over the past year, he saw how the virus infected many people close to him. His friends got infected. So did his in-laws. His brothers and sisters got the virus. His parents got it. Most tragic was his father’s case. 

“My dad didn’t make it,” Velasco said. “He passed away.” 

So when Velasco’s current employer, JBS Pork, in Worthington, announced a month ago that employees could sign up for COVID-19 vaccines on site, he jumped at the opportunity. Last Friday, the day finally came, as JBS and Sanford Health teamed up to give around 1,800 employees at the plant the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Speaking about three hours after getting his shot, Velasco said he didn’t feel any immediate side effects from the vaccine. His wife, who works as a pharmacy technician for Sanford, was also on site, working the event and helping vaccinate workers in the plant’s safety room. 

“For me, one of the biggest reasons for getting vaccinated is my kids,” Velasco said. “I don’t want to contract the virus and bring it home.” 

Two weeks ago, state health officials opened COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to several new groups and categories. A few different types of essential workers became eligible for the vaccine with this move, but only one kind rose to the top of the list for targeted vaccine outreach: food-processing plant workers. 

A large chunk of that workforce are immigrants, many of them undocumented. For such a plan to work, government officials, health providers, and employers would have to carefully plan around existing barriers between vaccine access and immigration status, as well as vaccine hesitancy among some. 

The efforts since then appear to be proving successful. Of the state’s existing 45,000 food-processing workers, roughly 25,000 received a vaccine within the past two weeks, according to Edwin Torres, a vaccine outreach director with the Minnesota Department of Health. 

The vaccine drive also holds the promise to end a disastrous last year for food-processing workers, who caught the virus in large numbers. 

Many of vaccine doses have come through vaccine drives at workplaces like the JBS/Sanford event where Velasco got his shot. In these cases, the employer partners with a health provider like Sanford or the local public health department. These players provide medical workers and supplies to distribute the vaccine in the workplace. 

Food-processing workers are also getting vaccinated at state-sponsored mass vaccination drives. Two are coming up this week: one in Worthington at the Worthington Event Center and one in Marshall at the MERIT Center. 

The scene couldn’t be more different than what meatpacking facilities like JBS were experiencing exactly nearly one year ago. Last spring, food processing plants were among the worst hotspots for the virus. 

JBS’s Worthington plant temporarily closed after more than two dozen workers tested positive for the virus in April 2020. Matt Utecht, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents workers in the JBS Worthington plant, estimated that between 600 and 800 workers ended up testing positive for the virus during the outbreak. At least two deaths were traced to the Worthington plant, according to previous media reports

“JBS was the epicenter of it for a week or two in the country,” Utecht said. “But we’ve come a long way since.”

After a two-week shutdown last spring, JBS Worthington opened back up and applied social distancing practices, installed plexiglass between employees, and limited the number of employees working in the plant to halt the spread of the virus. 

But long after the April outbreak, workers at the plant still got sick or were forced to quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure. While roughly 50–60 percent of the plant’s workforce were quarantining last spring during the worst of the outbreak, Utecht said, that number dropped to 10–20 percent of the workforce by the beginning of 2021. By this time, many of the positive infections were originating outside the factory, Utecht added. 

At the beginning of 2021, however, the plant was still operating at only 70 to 80 percent of its capacity, Utecht said. He estimated it wouldn’t be back to running at full capacity until after the pandemic. JBS, which didn’t return phone calls or voicemails seeking comment for this story, employs around 2,000 workers in its Worthington plant. 

‘What’s going to happen with my information?’

The JBS scenario shows why vaccination can look desirable both to employers, who want a full complement of employees, and workers, who don’t want to get sick. 

Some JBS Worthington workers expressed hesitancy to get vaccinated. Velasco said he heard people spreading rumors that the vaccine is a government tracking device. Others said they weren’t going to get vaccinated because they never got infected with COVID-19. 

However, Torres added, “The number one concern we’re hearing is, ‘What’s going to happen with my information? Will I have to show an ID? Will I have to explain why my name doesn’t match my employer’s records?’”

Undocumented immigrants make up a large portion of the state’s 45,000 food-processing workers, though the exact number is unclear. The state is home to around 100,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. This population most commonly works in manufacturing, agriculture, and food production, according to Torres. 

Undocumented immigrants can run into problems while trying to get vaccinated. In Minnesota and across the country, some undocumented people have been turned away from their vaccine appointments for not bringing a U.S. government–issued IDs.

Sanford Health designed the JBS Worthington event to keep this issue from happening, Torres said. At the start of the process, an employer alerts the worker of the event and offers to sign them up. 

Once a worker picks a vaccination time, a nurse or health worker will call the worker and confirm the registration. This interaction occurs verbally—without a document trail. After the worker gets vaccinated, they’ll receive a card from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention to write down their name.

The state-run vaccine drives, like the upcoming ones in Worthington and Marshall, operate similarly. 

“There isn’t, ‘Show me your ID, give me your immigration status,’” Torres said. “There isn’t, ‘Give me your health insurance card.’ There isn’t a confirmation of what name goes on the CDC card. None of that happens.”

Gentle persuasion

Similarly, the state health department has contracted with organizations that serve immigrants to get out the word about vaccine drives. Velasco’s own sister, Jessica Lee Velasco, is doing some of this outreach work in Worthington for Unidos-MN, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. 

Mainly, Jessica said, she checks in with people to gauge how they’re feeling about the vaccine. She hears some of the same mixed reactions that her brother also spoke about: Some workers are eager to get a dose, some want to wait it out for a while, and others don’t feel the need to get it. 

If people have doubts, she said, she thinks about strategies to encourage them to get a shot without coming off as forceful or preachy. For now, she said she’s listening to her community.

“I’m going into this not as like, ‘You need to get vaccinated!’ But just to get an idea,” she said. 

Once the meatpacking vaccine drives wrap up and the state moves on to new eligibility categories, Jessica said she knows some food-processing workers will still remain unvaccinated. For now, the goal is to get people to attend mass vaccine drives. 

“If you work in a meatpacking house, it shouldn’t be hard to get one,” Jessica said. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...