TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly initiated a COVID-19 inoculation program Thursday delivering first-round shots to an estimated 12,000 workers in meatpacking plants operating in Kansas to help close during the next week a vaccine distribution gap to Latino and Hispanic community members.

Kansas is a national hub of beef processing that was slowed, but not shut down, as COVID-19 infiltrated the economy in early 2020. The new vaccination initiative was a collaboration with plant owners, labor organizations, local officials and public health consultants. The objective is to provide the initial vaccination by the end of next week to all plant workers in Kansas who volunteer for the shot.

The governor said meatpacking workers were deemed essential and stayed on the job at risk to themselves and their families. About two-dozen have died in Kansas while more than 4,000 were infected with the coronavirus. Meatpacking plants have registered as the third-largest source of COVID-19 infection in Kansas and thousands of workers have yet to be vaccinated as the priority shifted among health professionals, educators, first responders, corrections officers and others.

The Hispanic and Latino communities have been disproportionately hurt by COVID-19 and the new program will go a distance in bridging a vaccination gap that emerged more recently, Kelly said.

“I know it can be difficult to remember how chaotic and unnerving those early days were,” Kelly said. “Concerned Kansans, if you remember, were flocking to stores to stock up on toilet paper, food and other supplies. We faced uncertainty about the virus, the economy, the food supply chain. In spite of all that, our dedicated meatpacking workers stepped up.”

The counties of Seward, Ford, Finney, Cowley and others will receive supplemental doses of vaccine earmarked for meatpacking workers at National Beef, Cargill, Tyson as well as smaller processing facilities, said Mike Beam, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture. These doses will be in addition to allotments of vaccine provided counties by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Martin Rosas, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2, said he was grateful for vaccine provided to Cargill and National Beef workers represented by the union.

“While the pandemic was taking a hit on our plants,” he said, “essential workers were there on the front lines producing and maintaining the food supply chain flow. This kind of recognition was needed. This is crucial and the right path to protect those workers in the communities where these plants are located. I believe our members are going to take advantage of this.”

Blanca Soto, a member of the Dodge City Commission, said plant workers where heroes who sacrificed to remain on the job. They were faced with difficult decisions about doing their utmost to protect their families from the virus and keeping their meatpacking jobs and health insurance, she said. Greater access to vaccine will help workers’ families and the communities where they live, she said.

“After all of their hard work and sacrifice, they will now have the opportunity to have a vaccine available,” Soto said. Meatpacking communities “will rest a lot easier tonight knowing that steps are going to be taken during this critical time to protect their health and safety.”

Tim Klein, chief executive officer of National Beef, said the vaccination effort would help protect the company’s employees and affirm the underappreciated role of meat processors in the food supply chain. He said Kansas was among the first states to offer National Beef employees vaccinations on a large scale.

“As we learned in April and May of last year, our operations are critical to livestock producers and other businesses up and down Kansas’ main streets,” Klein said. “By providing vaccines, we can achieve a common goal — protecting our workers and fulfilling our obligation to provide food for the American consumer.”

He said there would undoubtedly be a resurgence of coronavirus without movement to protect workers with vaccines. The inoculation effort began Thursday at National Beef in Liberal and the process ought to be completed by the end of next week, he said.

“We are very grateful for everyone involved in getting us to this point,” Klein said. “It would not have happened without the forward thinking and leadership shown by Governor Kelly and her staff, the state and local health leaders and UFCW Local 2, who has supported us in our efforts to both educate and encourage our workers to get the vaccine.”

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