As COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed to essential healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents, agriculture groups are requesting that frontline food and farm workers be prioritized next.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices agrees. On Dec. 20, it recommended approximately 49 million frontline workers be prioritized in the next phase of vaccinations, including food and agricultural laborers and grocery store employees.

Vaccine distribution is orchestrated on the state level. Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that the Virginia Department of Health is expected to begin vaccinating Phase 1b frontline workers, including food and farm workers, by the end of January.

“We commend the CDC for recognizing America’s food and agricultural workers as essential workers who are critical to preserving a functioning society,” said Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “We encourage VDH to put these workers at the top of the prioritization queue under Phase 1b, and work to ensure they are given ample, fair and easy access to vaccinations.

“Rural Virginians have long struggled with access to health care and health equity. Now is a crucial moment for the commonwealth to ensure the vaccine is distributed to all areas of the state, so when you get the vaccine depends on whether you are identified as high-risk, rather than where you live and work.”

A letter to President-elect Biden’s transition team, signed by American Farm Bureau Federation and other organizations in an agriculture coalition group, requested vaccine prioritization. The letter was submitted by the Ag CEO Council of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, a nonpartisan, nonprofit association representing elected and appointed commissioners, secretaries and directors of agricultural organizations in all 50 states.

“We fully appreciate and support that our nation’s heroic first responders, medical professionals, elderly and caretakers, along with other vulnerable individuals, clearly have the highest priority for vaccination,” the letter said. “However, as you move beyond these highest priority groups, the undersigned organizations ask that frontline food and agriculture employees be included in the next-highest priority for the vaccine within any federal COVID-19 Vaccination Plans.”

The letter said the agricultural labor force continues to fluctuate as employees face restrictions, risk exposure and are affected by quarantines. With unfilled positions, limited existing employees and processing facility closures, “this situation could very easily create disruptions and shortages in the food supply chain.”