Language barriers are complicating efforts to contain a large outbreak of COVID-19 that has hit the coastal community of Newport, infecting more than 120 workers employed by Pacific Seafood at several of its processing plants.
Newport has the second-largest workplace outbreak to date in Oregon. It is disproportionately impacting the Hispanic community in Newport, which makes up about 16% of the local population. The largest workplace outbreak to date is at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, with 167 cases.
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The Newport outbreak is sending shockwaves through the coastal city. County public health officials now say there is a significant risk transmission is happening in the community.
Local public health officials announced six new cases Wednesday and said they are investigating potential cases in workplaces beyond the Pacific Seafood processing plants.
Pacific Seafood announced Sunday that its employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The Lincoln County Public Health Department received names and contact information of the affected workers from Pacific Seafood on Monday. It began conducting case interviews on Tuesday. The company, for its part, shut down all five of its facilities in Newport.
This week, county health officials realized some of the plant workers may not have received a clear, intelligible explanation of what their positive COVID-19 test results mean.
While some of the impacted workers are native Spanish speakers, others belong to a Guatemalan indigenous group that speaks Mam, and are less fluent in Spanish. The Lincoln County Public Health Department — with a permanent staff of just 26 — does not have any Mam speakers on staff. Consequently, the county’s core message to stay home may not have been getting across, they said.
“They are still going out into the community, because they don’t feel sick,” said Rebecca Austen, Lincoln County Public Health Director.
“There is a bit of a crisis right now. Once we learn that, we need to be able to convey to them, 'You don’t feel sick, but you are carrying the virus.'”
Austen said the county has identified a few bilingual Mam speakers in the area who can help with the urgent communication issue. State officials are also sharing pictorial information on COVID-19 to hand out, since Mam is generally not a written language.
Pacific Seafood had recently brought workers from Mexico and Ukraine to Newport for seasonal work, sparking rumors in the town of 11,000 that the outbreak was spreading among outsiders.
But those foreign workers were tested for COVID-19 and quarantined prior to their arrival in Newport. They remain in hotels and had not started working in the seafood processing plants when the outbreak was detected, according to information that Pacific Seafood shared with Lincoln County health officials.
It is not clear how the outbreak started. Initially, health officials believed the virus had spread inside the Pacific Seafood shrimp processing plant and other facilities. But investigations suggest the plant was following recommended state guidelines for sanitation and social distancing. Austen said her department is still working to understand how the outbreak spread.
A majority of the workers in the outbreak — 114 of the 124 who tested positive — are local residents who are either permanent employees of Pacific Seafood or were hired through a temp agency, according to a summary of the outbreak. The remainder are seasonal workers who came to Oregon from California and Arizona.
“We know these people,” said Dean Sawyer, mayor of Newport. According to Sawyer, many Hispanic workers moved to the area decades ago to take jobs in the seafood industry.
“We all hang out together, see each other at the store. Our kids go to school together. They’re just regular families,” he said.
The county urgently needs more people who are bilingual and culturally competent to help with contact tracing, Sawyer added.
Some workers who have tested positive have spouses or family members with jobs in the community, including in local restaurants. That means there is a possibility the coronavirus has spread outside the processing plant and into a community that is in Phase 1 of reopening. Sawyer said restaurants that had just decided it was safe to reopen are now closing again.
The county is also rushing to put in place financial aid and other support for families that are quarantining. According to Sawyer, Pacific Seafood is still paying its workers. But spouses and extended family who are also being asked to quarantine may lose their jobs as well.
“Going out to work is survival for them. That’s a very challenging thing, because all the people who have been exposed in the household also need to stay home for 14 days,” Austen said.
Austen said local nonprofits including the Centro De Ayuda and the Newport Fishermen’s Wives are preparing to help.
“We are getting resources mobilized, to make sure that people aren’t going to get kicked out of their housing because they can’t pay their rent, and that they have food delivered to their doorsteps,” Austen said.
New Oregon COVID-19 Cases By ZIP Code
This map shows new cases of COVID-19 in each ZIP code in Oregon. ZIP codes are colored by the number of cases per 10,000 residents. "New" cases includes cases between June 1 and June 7; "All" cases are the number of cases recorded by OHA as of June 1. ZIPs are shaded to show contrast; rates in Oregon remain lower than most of the U.S.