Sixty-nine employees have tested positive, as well as 15 close contacts
VANCOUVER — Clark County Public Health says the COVID-19 outbreak tied to a Vancouver frozen fruit packing plant has grown to 84 cases, including 69 employees of the company and 15 close contacts of those employees.
Out of those confirmed cases in employees, 18 had shown no symptoms of the disease at the time of testing.
The outbreak pushes Clark County’s total of confirmed COVID-19 cases to 510, up from 427 at this time Friday.
At a press conference on Tuesday, the county’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Alan Melnick, said they learned about the first cases at Firestone Pacific Foods on Fruit Valley Road Mon., May 18. The company had reported a positive diagnosis in three employees using the county’s inquiry line, rather than the infectious disease reporting line.
“One of the things we’re looking for when we do communicable diseases investigations is things that cases have in common,” said Melnick. “Once you have more than one case you can tie something they otherwise might not have in common together.”
In this case, that turned out to be where the cases worked.
Melnick says the plant, which packs frozen fruit, was shut down last Tuesday at their recommendation. The Department of Labor and Industries was also brought in to work with the company on improvements to their safety practices.
Firestone CEO Josh Hinderfeld indicated in interviews last week that the company had safety protocols in place, but Melnick says the case investigator they sent to the plant felt it needed to be shut down temporarily.
“There were questions and concerns enough that we felt they should not be operating as of Tuesday,” said Melnick.
After several more cases came in early last week, Melnick says they worked with The Vancouver Clinic to arrange testing. Firestone also agreed to cover any costs associated with testing, since the majority of their workforce does not have health insurance.
Testing continued over the weekend, and Melnick said he expects there are a little over 20 close contacts remaining to be tested.
“These cases may have gone undetected and potentially exposed others had we not facilitated testing of all employees,” said Melnick. “By being proactive, we have hopefully kept this outbreak contained to Firestone employees and close contacts, and prevented the outbreak from spreading into the community.”
Melnick added that only three of the new confirmed cases added over the weekend were outside of the Firestone plant outbreak.
In a release on Monday, Firestone said they anticipate reopening the packing facility on Thursday (May 28). Melnick said he had not seen those plans, and would need to make sure the business has implemented the requested safety modifications in order to reopen.
Those could include plexiglass dividers, requiring the wearing of masks, and outdoor lunch areas to allow employees to socially distance while on break.
Food processing facilities have become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. With employees often working in close proximity for long periods of time, and needing to shout over noisy equipment, the virus seems to spread easily.
Firestone says it will require employees who test positive to remain off of work at least 10 days after their testing date. Those experiencing symptoms will need to be symptom-free at least 72 hours before returning to work. Anyone who does come to work will receive daily health screenings and other information.
Melnick said there is no concern that the virus could spread to foods packaged at the plant. Studies have shown the virus seems to largely be spread through extended direct contact, and does not transmit well through food or packaging.
Phase 2 variance on pause
County officials are hoping to get more details this week from the state about the status of their application to move into Phase 2 of reopening. The application for that variance, filed last Friday, was placed on hold Saturday in order for the state to more fully investigate the Firestone outbreak.
“I hope we can get to Phase 2,” Melnick said, “but the primary objective is to protect people and to protect public health and safety.”
Melnick said he likely would still have recommended applying for the Phase 2 variance despite knowing about the Firestone cases, though he was surprised to learn the scale of the outbreak as it emerged.
“I did not know, when we did the universal testing on Friday, that we would find the amount of cases that we found,” said Melnick. “On Friday, we tested 50 employees and we found 26 positives. That was a pretty high attack rate.”
Melnick says they’ve had seven registered nurses doing case investigations, with five staff members doing contact notification. The county has contracted with the Public Health Institute to bring more contact tracers on board, if needed, but they likely won’t be available until the end of this week, optimistically.
“As you can imagine, this has been a strain on our staff,” Melnick said. “We’re pulling them from other duties, just like we did during the measles outbreak, to do this work.”
Ultimately, Melnick said he is hopeful the speed with which they responded to the outbreak, and the lack of obvious community spread beyond this incident, may give them a case for still moving ahead to Phase 2.
That will be a decision for Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman. Melnick said he hopes to have a conversation with him about the variance before the end of this week.