Feb. 20—MOULTRIE, Ga. — Local officials are reaching out to those at the state level in hopes of expanding the groups eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
During a ZOOM meeting with community leaders Thursday morning, Colquitt Regional Medical Center President and CEO Jim Matney said reaching agricultural workers soon will be critical.
Matney said the arrival of migrant farm workers last spring heralded a spike in the number of local cases, and with planting season just around the corner the scene is set for a repeat this year.
Seasonal farm workers are essential to the operation of many Colquitt County farms, and together the county's agricultural producers represent the largest single element of the local economy. Many of the workers come from outside the United States, and many are housed in dormitories of 50-60 people while they're on a job, Matney said. Such close confines are ideal for the spread of a respiratory illness like COVID.
"There's zero compliance [to social distance and masking rules] among migrant workers in the barracks," he said.
Jeremy Kichler, supervisor of the UGA Extension Service in Colquitt County, said his office is holding producers meetings for cotton and peanuts online now and in-person training for Dicamba herbicide is coming soon. He agreed to discuss COVID concerns with the farmers who attend those meetings, and Matney offered to have someone from the hospital participate.
Currently, state rules allow the COVID-19 vaccine to be given to health care workers, people over age 65, firefighters and police officers in what's called Phase 1A+. Residents of long-term care facilities are also included but are addressed through a different distribution program.
Other essential workers fall into Phase 1B, according to an email from Colquitt Regional in response to questions after the ZOOM meeting.
"Phase 1B includes essential workers (non-healthcare) who perform job tasks across critical infrastructure sectors ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health, safety, economic, and national security," the email said. "We expect more clarity on who that includes and how we can assist as we get to closer to the next phase."
In other words, no one has confirmed that agricultural workers fall into Phase 1B, but Matney and others certainly hope they do.
"What we need right now is a plan to get those ag workers [vaccinated]," he said during the ZOOM call.
Part of the urgency is the time it takes for the vaccine to take effect. Matney explained that the first dose provides some protection, the second dose comes 21 or 28 days later (depending on which version of the vaccine you receive), and it's seven days after that second shot when a person can expect the 95% protection against the virus that was shown in laboratory tests.
Other local industries, especially food processing, also hope their workers will qualify for Phase 1B, according to Barbara Grogan, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority. National Beef and similar companies are just waiting for their employees to be able to get the shot, she said, but except for workers over age 65, they can't.
Also during the meeting, Colquitt County Administrator Chas Cannon broached the subject of workforce disruption as companies deal with quarantined workers. He asked when society can get to treating the sick and letting the well continue to work.
"The key is to vaccinate more people," Matney responded.
The good news, he said, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidelines. Under the new rules, anyone who's had both doses of the vaccine does not need to quarantine if they're exposed to a positive case, such as a sick family member. As more people are vaccinated, this change will help reduce the quarantining of people who haven't themselves tested positive.
As far as treatment goes, Dr. Woodwin Weeks, a hospital physician who participated in Thursday's meeting, said doctors are still learning what works.
"The treatment is there," Weeks said, "but it's not anywhere close to universally effective."
A representative of the Colquitt County Health Department frequently participates in the community ZOOM meetings but was not on Thursday's call. After the meeting, The Observer reached out to Dr. Charles Ruis, director of the Southwest Public Health District for comment.
Ruis said migrants weren't much associated with outbreaks in Colquitt County because most of them lived together and they didn't seem to mix much with others off the farm.
He said he cannot confirm that workers in the food industry will be part of Phase 1B, but he thinks it's likely.
Overall, he said, the DPH vaccination effort is going well, having administered 8,107 doses in Colquitt County alone, but recent weather delayed this week's shipment. He said he hopes shipments will start arriving Feb. 22.