By Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2021

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Meatpacking plants were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, yet thousands of workers at facilities in southwest Kansas are still waiting to hear when they’ll be vaccinated.

The Kansas News Service reported that the wait is frustrating for workers who have watched college faculty, first responders and postal workers get their vaccines, and Kansas has launched a program to get a first dose into the arms of every school worker by early April.

Meatpacking plants have been the state’s third-largest source of COVID-19 outbreaks, topped only by long-term care facilities and correctional centers.

“Meatpacking workers have taken one of the hardest hits of this pandemic,” said Monica Vargas-Huertas, political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2 representing 7,000 meatpacking workers in two southwest Kansas counties.

“They kept working, securing the food (supply),” Vargas-Huertas said, “and securing the economy of the state.”

But state officials say meatpacking facilities took steps that greatly reduced transmission. They note plants have seen no new outbreaks involving five or more cases in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, Kansas simply isn’t receiving enough vaccine from the federal government to quickly vaccinate all essential workers.

Ashley Goss, deputy secretary for public health, said Gov. Laura Kelly wants to get children back to school soon because missing in-person contact with peers and educators can have long-term effects on learning and mental health.

“She’s had to make some really tough decisions,” Goss said. “And she feels very strongly for our school staff to be the next push.”

Kansas has some of the country’s most productive beef plants, driving the economies of towns such as Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal. Meatpacking workers are mainly immigrants and people of color.

Evidence suggests people of color nationwide don’t have equal access to vaccines. Kansas will soon publish coronavirus vaccination statistics that shed light on whether that holds true in Kansas, too.

Nearly 4,000 cases of COVID-19 and two dozen deaths have been linked directly to Kansas meat plants.

Phase 1 of Kansas’ vaccine rollout plan focused on health care workers and nursing homes. Meatpacking workers fall into Phase 2, along with over age 65, teachers, police and grocery clerks - about 1 million people, or a third of the state’s population.

The state largely lets each county decide how to prioritize within Phase 2. This week the governor’s office announced one exception: It will earmark doses each week for school workers.

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