Nearly half of the fruit packer’s workforce has tested positive for COVID-19
VANCOUVER — If Firestone Pacific Foods is planning to reopen on Thursday, it is news to Clark County Public Health.
The fruit packing plant at the center of a COVID-19 outbreak that has now seen 106 employees and close contacts test positive for infection had announced in a release on Monday that they would be reopening the plant on Thu., May 28.
“They haven’t spoken to me or our department,” said Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick in response to a question at Wednesday’s Board of Public Health meeting about Firestone reopening. “Given the attack rate that they had, all the employees should be considered quarantined.”
As of Wednesday, a total of 74 employees at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 32 close contacts. That was out of 167 employees and 121 close contacts that had been tested.
Firestone had not returned a request for comment as of this publication.
According to Clark County Public Health, the first cases connected to Firestone popped up on Sun., May 17. By Tuesday, the business was shut down after more than half a dozen cases had been confirmed. There were a dozen cases by last Friday, when The Vancouver Clinic began universal testing and re-testing of all employees and close contacts.
Melnick says their nurse investigator who responded to Firestone, which is located on Fruit Valley Road in Vancouver, noted several concerns, including a common sign-in sheet that was being used by all employees.
The Dept. of Labor and Industries (LNI) was brought in to oversee changes to address those concerns, including outdoor lunch areas with dividers, plexiglass dividers between employees, more sanitizing stations, and increased use of personal protective equipment.
Melnick said his office gave permission to Firestone to have some employees who had not had direct contact with a known case access the building in order to implement the changes, though they were asked to go in alone, and then immediately return home during the quarantine period.
“But having folks who are in quarantine working together,” Melnick added, “that doesn’t … we need to get through the quarantine period.”
Melnick said he would potentially be open to allowing Firestone to resume operations if they could find enough temporary workers to do the job, but they would need to have no connection to existing employees, or any of their close contacts.
“They’d have to meet the concerns that LNI had,” Melnick added. “They haven’t approached us with that particular suggestion, but that would work for me.”
As of Wednesday, Clark County has 533 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Since last Friday, only four of the new cases have not been linked to the outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods.
The state has announced 24 counties are approved to move to the second phase of reopening. Clark County’s application for a variance remains on pause as the Firestone outbreak is investigated.
Melnick said he anticipates having a conversation with Secretary of Health John Wiesman later this week, and is hopeful that the quick reaction and containment of the outbreak will work in the county’s favor when it comes to getting permission to move ahead with reopening.