Vaccines and tamales: NC pharmacists bringing COVID shots to farm workers, families

·4 min read

After working for corporate pharmacies most of his career, Dr. Jin Lee decided to open his own pharmacy in Cary.

Lee and his wife have lived in Apex since 2008. But being able to serve his community on a personal level, he found, was not something he could achieve at a large company.

“I wanted to go back and practice the pharmacy the way it was in the past as far as customer service is concerned and bring that to, you know, our community,” Lee said.

With fellow pharmacist Dr. Alfred Catolico, Lee opened DJ’s Pharmacy in July 2020 just months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It took a long time for the board permits and construction,” he said. “We were finally able to open July 23 of 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.”

Lee applied to become part of state and federal vaccination programs, and DJ’s was approved as a supplier of the Moderna vaccine in February 2021.

But by June, he said, anyone who wanted a local vaccine had likely gotten one.

So Lee started wondering about other areas where people might need his help.

Vaccines for migrant workers

A customer told Lee she volunteered for the Episcopal Farm Worker Ministry in Newton Grove, about an hour south of Raleigh.

Around the same time, Lee started receiving memos from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services about its Farmworker Health Program and COVID-19 Farmworker Vaccination Plan.

Lee’s customer introduced him to Larissa Garzón with the ministry, and by July DJ’s pharmacy was arranging to go out on weekends.

Seasonal migrant workers, like many immigrants in the country, have limited transportation to health care. Language barriers complicate matters, as Lee knew firsthand.

“I was born and raised in South Korea. I came here when I was in high school,” he explained. “My parents still have some language barriers, and it took them several months up in Michigan to find a vaccine location where they could get vaccinated.”

Since July, Lee, Catolico and other health care volunteers have spent their weekends at the Episcopal Farm Workers Ministry vaccinating hundreds of migrant workers, their families and another Spanish-speaking immigrants at pop-up clinics at the ministry’s headquarters and nearby businesses.

From April through September, thanks to independent pharmacists and volunteers, 26,500 doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were administered, with 13,950 people fully vaccinated, according to DHHS. That’s 883 doses on average per week.

“Without Dr. Lee,” Garzón said during a September clinic, “we really couldn’t reach the most vulnerable people — those people that are undocumented and don’t have cars, those people that come here with an H-2A visas (for temporary agricultural workers) and don’t have transportation to come to events like this one.”

“We are able to go to where they live, we are able to serve them, sometimes from 6 to 9 p.m. because that’s when they’re done with work.,” she added. “We’re so grateful to him and his team.”

Access to the vaccine

At a pop-up vaccination event on Sept. 4, Leonidas Antonio Rivas and his wife, Maria Chevez, walked around the multi-use shelter in the middle of the Episcopal Farm Worker Ministry’s campus.

Rows of chairs were set up six feet apart for the short observation period after people got their shot. Once the 15 minutes were up, people rushed to surrounding tables for fresh homemade corn tamales, groceries, gift cards, books and school supplies.

“We always have groceries for them, we have a $25 gift cards so that they can pay for their gas, and then we have lots of things for their kids, like books and games and backpacks this time around,” Garzón said. “Other times we have things like emergency kits, because we’re in hurricane season. So it’s really whatever donations we have available.”

These extras make the migrants’ visit worthwhile, Garzón explains, because missing a work to get vaccinated could mean not being able to put food on the table or provide for their families.

Rivas and Chevez have been coming to the ministry since the early 2000s. On this day, they got their first dose of the vaccine. Both their hands were full as they made their way to their truck.

“It’s good to have (the vaccine) here. It’s close and they take good care of us,” Rivas said in Spanish, lifting his hands to show off the items he received.

Evelin Andino, who is pregnant with her second child, agrees. She lives nearby in Clinton and received her second dose of the vaccine.

“I came here to protect myself against the virus, but this is a great service they are providing to the community by making it easier to get vaccinated,” she said.

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