WCMA Notes: Vaccination Varies in Dairy States

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News,

Vaccination Varies in Dairy States

Vaccination of dairy plant workers remains a priority in most leading dairy states, but questions abound among manufacturers reaching out to state and county health officials.  Here’s an overview of vaccination eligibility and rollout in leading cheesemaking states.

Most states, with the notable exception of New York, have maintained a high priority for food and agriculture workers, with many explicitly noting dairy or food processing in that category.

This ranking was grimly supported by a University of California, San Francisco, study released January 22 looking at excess mortality in Californians under age 65 in occupational sectors. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, working age adults experienced a 22% increase in mortality compared to historical periods,” the report states, “Relative excess mortality was highest in food/agriculture workers (39% increase), transportation/logistics workers (28% increase), facilities (27% increase) and manufacturing workers (23% increase).”

A common concern among processors is how states will verify the occupation and documentation of essential workers such as dairy plant workers. As one solution, processors across the country have reported seeking permission from county health officials to host vaccination events at plant sites, but no plan has been authorized to date. It is unclear if vaccination events will come to the workforce or workers will sign up for appointments at clinics and pharmacies.

New York

The dairy and food industry in New York suffered a setback in January when the state abruptly dropped its plan to include agricultural and food industry workers in its current 1B group for vaccinations.

Alex Walsh, VP Regulatory Affairs with North East Dairy Foods Association, described a coalition of food and beverage manufacturers, farm organization and dairy processors organized to bring clarity to the essential workers list proposed for vaccinations beginning January 11. This group presumably achieved its goal of elevating these workers to 1B status, but on the evening of January 10, the coalition got disappointing news: only grocery workers would be included in the 1B list ready set to roll out the next day.

The vaccination status of agricultural and food workers remains unclear in New York State. This week, Gov. Cuomo added additional categories to 1B, but again not the food and agriculture sector. Dairy manufacturers are offering to host vaccinations to aid in efficient distribution, Walsh said, but plans for dairy workers are now in limbo.


On January 26, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services approved its second group of residents (Phase 1B) eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. “Dairy plant employees” are explicitly named under the category Food Supply Chain in this second group. Others in the Food Supply Chain group include all farm employees and owners, meat plant employees, and fruit and vegetable plant employees.  Grocery store staff, including convenience stores and gas stations are also in this group.

This entire “second wave” group will be eligible to begin receiving vaccinations on March 1, 2021.

Wisconsin is currently immunizing frontline health care workers, resident in nursing and long-term care facilities, emergency service providers, corrections staff and all state adults over age 65.

Dairy plants in Wisconsin have reached out to county health departments with offers to host plantwide vaccinations. Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has joined a small working group organized by the State’s Department of Health Services to provide ideas on the rollout of vaccines March 1 to Food Supply Chain groups.


California recently opened up its second group of eligible residents – known as Phase 1B, Tier One –including food and agriculture workers. This group follows initial vaccination of more than three million health care workers and long-term care residents in California.

This first tier in Phase 1B is large – 8.5 million people – beginning with Californians over 65 years old and moving to education and child care workers and emergency service personnel alongside food and agriculture workers “at risk of exposure at work.”

Bill Schiek, executive director at Dairy Institute of California, recently updated members with news that priority status remained for dairy manufacturers – part of the food and agriculture sector. After dairy and other essential service sectors are served, California will move to entirely age-based eligibility.

Vaccination logistics for essential industries remain unclear. Larger dairy plants in the state have offered to host on-site vaccination days, Schiek notes, but counties in California will create systems for occupation-based immunization and no clear plan has yet been announced.


Idaho has slotted food and agriculture workers (including food processor workers) in its Group 2.3, following health care workers, first responders, teachers, child care and correctional workers and more than 250,000 Idahoans 65 years or older. Idaho Health & Welfare officials project Group 2.3 will begin receiving injections later in February. One WCMA member reports that health officials have begun to reach out seeking employee numbers and an estimate of the number of employees willing to be vaccinated.

New Mexico

Early in January, New Mexico announced that it was moving to its Phase 1B group, including food and agriculture workers unable to work remotely.  This group first prioritizes people older than 75 and over 16 with underlying medical conditions before moving on to the essential industries. Among the essential groups, child care workers, teachers and higher education staff and grocery workers are prioritized before food and agriculture workers.

Other States

South Dakota has been recognized for success in rolling out its vaccination program. The state is currently immunizing in its Group D for people 65 or older, residents living in congregate settings, teachers, and persons with two or more underlying medical conditions. Group E, estimated to begin in April, includes emergency service personnel and critical infrastructure workers. Food and agriculture, including dairy processing employees, will fall into this group.

Iowa lists “workers in food, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing sectors who live or work in non-social distanced settings” as second in line in its currently activated Phase 1B group, behind first responders, teachers and child care workers. A WCMA member reports that local Iowa health officials have asked for dairy plant worker numbers by county of residence.

Minnesota is vaccinating its Phase 1A group of health care personnel and residents in long-term care facilities. In mid-January, the state opened an appointment system for citizens over 65 years old and a similar employer-based appointment information system for educators and child care providers. The state lists frontline essential workers as next line for eligibility, but has moved citizens over 65 ahead of this earlier published plan.

Ohio has a detailed vaccination rollout, with its Phase 1B group now receiving shots. Currently, Ohioans over 65 years old are being vaccinated, and citizens with underlying health conditions will follow later in February. Teachers and personnel at schools with in-person instruction are also being immunized in February. A plan for essential workers and other groups is under development.