In the wake of an outbreak at a fruit packing plant in Vancouver, Washington, the top public health official in Clark County said he hasn’t changed his recommendation to reopen.
And the local council for the League of United Latin American Citizens has called on the plant, Firestone Pacific Foods, to ensure the dozens of workers impacted are protected.
On Tuesday, Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s Public Health Officer, said taking action to shut down the facility, conduct widespread testing and deploy contact tracers shows the county is prepared for these incidents.
“It’s likely we’ll see more of these cases, more of these outbreaks – it’s just our ability to make sure that we can contain the transmission and prevent it from going any further,” Melnick said.
In the last nine days, 84 people have tested positive for COVID-19 due to a spread at Firestone Pacific Foods. Sixty-five are workers. Fifteen are people who’ve had close contact with plant employees.
The outbreak spiked Clark County’s total number of known cases to 510.
For those raring to get back to places like restaurants, bars and salons, the timing could have hardly been worse.
On May 19, Gov. Jay Inslee named Clark County as one of the newest places eligible to apply for the state’s second phase of reopening. That same day, public health officials told Firestone Pacific to shut down large parts of its Vancouver operation.
Three days later, county officials held a special meeting to approve sending the county’s application to reopen. Meanwhile, public health staff started the process of testing all employees at the plant and began contact tracing efforts.
Thirty-eight cases emerged that afternoon, as first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive. By Saturday afternoon, the state Department of Health put a pause on the reopening application.
“We started doing this proactive testing, universal testing on Friday and found a very high attack rate. It’s really horrible, unfortunate, but not something I anticipated,” Melnick said.
Still, Melnick remained confident, both because of the outbreak and despite it. Without it, the number of cases in Clark County remained low enough to meet the state’s guidelines. And the plant cases showed the county can respond to a fast-moving outbreak.
“If our numbers countywide remain low, and we’re able to show that we can contain this particular outbreak, yes, my recommendation would be to move to Phase 2,” Melnick said.
There were some delays to start testing. Health officials said it took a couple of days to organize staff, getting supplies and reaching out to workers.
Many workers at Firestone Pacific Foods also do not have health insurance. The company negotiated with The Vancouver Clinic on Thursday to pay for the testing, a spokesperson for the clinic said.
Melnick did mention there were “questions and concerns” about safety issues at the plant before the plant closed Tuesday. He said the state Department of Labor & Industries is working with the company to make fixes.
“There were questions and concerns enough that we felt they should not be operating as of Tuesday,” he said.
Laura Dellinger, a spokesperson for Firestone Pacific Foods, said the company followed CDC guidelines and required masks to ensure social distancing where possible. She said the plant has also provided every worker access to telemedical services, so everyone can talk to a doctor.
Workers at the plant, who come primarily from Hispanic or Pacific Islander communities, may need more help, said the Southwest Washington branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The organization on Saturday sent a letter to the company demanding workers be given financial aid and healthcare during the pandemic.
“We are concerned about the safety of employees moving forward and about providing financial support during this closure, as well as for healthcare coverage costs,” said Ed Hamilton, president of the local branch.
He noted that some may be in families with mixed immigration statuses, depriving access to relief packages.
“For our communities of color, we are already the most vulnerable due to the lack of health access, lack of proper food, lack of supportive housing,” he said. He said if these workers are deemed essential, then it should be essential to “protect their livelihoods as well.”