Melnick speaks

Clark County Health Officer and Public Health Director Alan Melnick speaks to the press via a Zoom meeting to answer questions about an outbreak of COVID-19 at a Vancouver food processing facility identified last week

An outbreak of COVID-19 at a Vancouver frozen fruit plant has resulted in more than 80 individuals confirmed to have the disease, Clark County Public Health reported today, May 26.

The department said that 84 individuals who either worked at Firestone Pacific Foods or were close contacts with workers were confirmed to have COVID-19. Of those, 69 worked at the plant while 15 had close contact — of the workers, 18 were asymptomatic.

The first case of a worker at Firestone — a frozen fruit processing factory — was interviewed on May 18 and was subsequently isolated with close contacts reached out to by Public Health, the department stated. A day later additional cases were identified, with factory-wide testing beginning on May 22, the department said.

Public Health worked both with the factory and the Vancouver Clinic to implement the testing. In total, 165 employees and 83 close contacts have been tested as of Public Health’s announcement Tuesday afternoon, with additional testing of employees and close contacts is expected.

During a virtual press conference Clark County Health Officer and Public Health Director Alan Melnick said the Firestone facility remained largely closed, though he acknowledged some employees had been at the building in order to make safety improvements for an eventual re-opening. He said he was not concerned over possible contamination of the disease in the factory’s product, given that COVID-19 is not foodborne.

Melnick noted that many workers at the factory faced a language barrier in the investigations, and that employees were not insured. He added that Firestone had agreed to pay for testing for its workers.

He said the factory could reopen after the incubation period for the disease had passed — about 14 days — and the state Department of Labor & Industries was satisfied with safety measures put in place.

Melnick said the outbreak has been a strain on county staff, though he noted the county Board of Health approved a contract with Public Health Institute for contact tracing. Department spokesperson Marissa Armstrong said the department had seven registered nurses doing case interviews and five other individuals on the county’s contact notification team, following up with individuals who may have been exposed.

The outbreak has proven a hurdle for Clark County returning to business as usual following the COVID-19 pandemic. The county was announced as one of 10 additional counties eligible for a variance from the statewide “Safe Start Washington” phasing to reopening activities in the state last week, though the county was notified May 23 that their application was put “on pause” due to the outbreak at Firestone.

Melnick said that the county’s response to the outbreak at Firestone could be critical to demonstrating how it can respond to similar crises. Previously Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman had noted that the ability to respond to outbreaks was part of criteria necessary for a county to be approved for a variance.

While the application process for the variance was going through last week Melnick said he was not aware that universal testing of the factory would lead to the number of cases it did. Melnick, who also serves as health officer for Cowlitz County, noted that an outbreak at Foster Farms, a poultry producer, only had 11 of its 200 workers test positive, compared to the 69 of the roughly 170 workers at Firestone.

Although the factory outbreak has resulted in the most drastic increase of confirmed COVID-19 in the county, Melnick noted that outside of transmission at that one location, the increase of confirmed cases has kept the same pace as the county was trending previous to the outbreak’s discovery.

Melnick said that as long as the county’s ability to handle potential outbreaks remained strong and the other number of cases remained low, he would still be in favor of the variance application.

“If  we’re able to contain … this outbreak, and we’re able to keep the numbers countywide low, yeah, I would be interested in pursuing phase two,” Melnick said.  He noted that the second phase still had restrictions, being one step in a four-phase process of reopening.

Melnick affirmed that Public Health and partners would focus on widespread testing, even if the number of confirmed cases would lead to further stalling of the county’s ability to move into subsequent phases of reopening.

“I think that our main concern, our main goal, shouldn’t be whether we meet the metric to get to phase two or whatever. Our main goal is to be able to protect the public and identify cases,” Melnick remarked. “I hope we can get to phase two, but the primary objective is to protect people.”

The cases from the factory outbreak bring the countywide total to 510 cases. No deaths of employees of the factory were reported, keeping the countywide total at 25.

Melnick said that he did not believe any workers were currently hospitalized. In total, six people confirmed to have COVID-19 were hospitalized as of Public Health’s latest report.

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