Clark County’s move to Phase 2 ‘on pause’ due to packing plant outbreak

Cowlitz County and six others were approved to move ahead on Saturday

CLARK COUNTY — NOTE: This story has been updated with statements from Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick, as well as several members of County Council.

Clark County’s application for a variance to move to Phase 2 of reopening has been placed “on pause” by the state Department of Health (DOH) on Saturday, pending a review of an outbreak at the Firestone Pacific Foods packing plant on Fruit Valley Road in Vancouver.

In a release from the state’s Joint Information Center announcing seven counties that were approved to move into Phase 2, the DOH noted that Clark and Kitsap County’s applications are being held up “until further discussion next week due to outbreak investigations.”

The Firestone fruit packing plant on Fruit Valley Road has seen a major outbreak of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Photo by Ken Vance
The Firestone Pacific Foods packing plant is the center of a COVID-19 outbreak being investigated by Clark County Public Health. Photo by Ken Vance

On Friday, Clark County Public Health announced that 38 employees at Firestone had tested positive for COVID-19 following an investigation into several cases that emerged at the company last Sunday.

“While this outbreak is unfortunate, our response demonstrates we have the confidence and capability to respond to situations like this,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director in a release on Saturday afternoon.

Melnick said Public Health, along with Washington Labor and Industries, as well as The Vancouver Clinic have been working together responding to the outbreak.

The business was shut down on Tuesday, at the urging of Public Health, in order to reduce the risk of further spread. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said the virus does not spread easily through food or packaging.

The Vancouver Clinic began testing all of the facility’s 150 employees on Friday afternoon. Twelve cases had been previously identified, and testing on Friday revealed 26 more. Additional testing is being conducted over the weekend.

Anyone who tested positive is being asked to isolate at home. Meanwhile, Public Health employees are working to notify any close contacts, and advise them to self-quarantine for 14 days from their last contact with the infected case.

“The timing could not have been worse,” said Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy in an interview with Clark County Today. “We’re absolutely leaning forward trying to expeditiously get the county more opened up, safely, within the rules that the governor set.”

“Public Health has gone above and beyond in its response to this outbreak,” said Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring. “As our community moves forward, whether next week or in the weeks that follow, we may unfortunately see more positive cases. Public Health’s efforts during this outbreak show they have the ability to effectively respond to outbreaks in order to keep our community healthy.”

Firestone CEO Josh Hinerfeld told The Oregonian Newspaper that they believed they had the correct procedures in place to prevent an outbreak.

“It bit us in the rear end,” Hinerfeld told the newspaper. “This genie is not back in the bottle.”

Under guidelines set by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, counties must have no more than 10 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days. With Clark County’s population, that would set the cap here at around 49 cases. 

According to analysis done by Clark County Today, there have been 52 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Clark County since May 8, not including the 26 confirmed Friday evening, which had not been included in the official count as of yet.

“My thoughts go out to the families that were impacted by this recent outbreak, and I’m also disappointed for the businesses that thought they had a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Councilor John Blom in a statement to Clark County Today. “I’m thankful for the exceptional work Dr. Melnick did in responding to the new cases. Their quick response and decision to do comprehensive testing will help keep our case count down in the long term.”

Medvigy said that, while disappointed at the delay, he remained hopeful the county’s response to the outbreak will prove their capability to move ahead with a transition to reopening more businesses.

“Having the transition paused, and then proving that we’ve handled it will put us more solidly into a good posture to begin phase two,” Medvigy said.

Clark County Public Health said they are working with Firestone to implement several safety improvements once the business is allowed to resume operations.

Clark County Public Health anticipates more information about the outbreak and any further positive cases will be available on Tuesday.