When COVID-19 ripped through meatpacking plants in the spring, it put Nebraska on the map as one of the top hot spots for the virus. Despite calls from advocates, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he didn’t want to shut down the plants where workers, who kept supply chains moving by breaking down chicken, beef and other foods, were catching and dying from the virus.

Now Ricketts has caught flack for saying undocumented immigrants, who make up 14% of Nebraska’s meatpacking workers according to the Migration Policy Institute, will not be eligible for the vaccine.

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” Ricketts said Monday. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesperson, clarified that undocumented people could get the vaccine, but that citizens and legal immigrants would be prioritized. But stories started to appear nationwide with many chastising Ricketts for putting the health of many at risk due to their citizenship status.

On Wednesday, Ricketts fired back at the criticism, specifically from Alexandria Oscario-Cortez, a Democratic representative from New York, who tweeted: “Imagine being so racist that you go out of your way to ensure that the people who prepare *your* food are unvaccinated.”

“AOC is someone who does not care about Nebraska,” he said.

“AOC is somebody who wants to have open borders,” he later said. “She wants to have socialism. She is the one who promoted the New Green Deal, which would destroy the cattle industry here in Nebraska, our number one industry. She doesn’t care about Nebraska and despite the tweets of AOC, we’re going to work our vaccination plan here in Nebraska and do what’s right for Nebraska.”

Oscario-Cortez immediately responded.

“Given that I want EVERY Nebraskan to have vaccine access, including *every* meatpacker and not just *some*,” she tweeted, “I think I care about more Nebraskans than even Ricketts does.”

The question of who gets the vaccine has troubled many states. Most states have followed federal recommendations by prioritizing frontline health care workers and residents and staff at nursing homes. But after that, deciding who’s an essential worker and who among them should be immunized first has not been as clear.

In December, Ricketts announced meatpacking plant workers, prison staff and teachers would be among the people vaccinated in phase 1B. 

The federal government has not said citizenship would be a requirement to receive the vaccine, despite requests from some Trump officials that people receiving the vaccine provide a form of identification. But activists have feared undocumented people would still face discrimination.

In Nebraska, undocumented people do not officially have to provide a form of identification to receive a vaccine. 

This isn’t the only example of the dynamic nature of the vaccine rollout.

Elected officials in states like Texas and Florida have sidelined some health care workers to vaccinate more elderly people. Gov. Jared Polis from Colorado walked back a state plan that would have prioritized prisoners and prison staff equally after facing national backlash.

Even in the administration of the vaccine, things have not gone as planned. Ricketts has asked for patience from Nebraskans as the vaccine rollout moves slower than expected.

While Nebraska is among the top performing states, so far less than 1,000 people have received their second shot required for immunization. Most of the nation is experiencing similar delays. The federal government had hoped to immunize 20 million by the end of 2020, however, they only reached 2.8 million.


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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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