A COVID-19 outbreak at a Vancouver food processing facility has puts Clark County Public Health’s request for a Phase 2 variance from Washington state on hold.
As of Saturday, 47 employees at Firestone Pacific Foods have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to company CEO Josh Hinerfeld.
This appears to be the Portland area’s biggest workplace outbreak thus far, excluding the healthcare sector.
“As our community moves forward, whether next week or in the weeks that follow, we may unfortunately see more positive cases,” Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring said in a news release.
Hinerfeld said the company with 161 employees and 18 temporary workers and contractors had its first confirmed case midday Sunday, May 17, and learned of two more later that afternoon.
The Vancouver plant shut down Monday but the infection total has now grown to 47, with 26 new cases confirmed on Friday, according to public health authorities.
One of the infected employees has been hospitalized.
The Vancouver Clinic shifted from its normal operations and on Friday started testing Firestones’ remaining workforce, and to retest some of those who previously tested negative.
Clark County’s public health department said late Friday that it is tracking the Firestone outbreak and working to trace the contacts of infected employees.
Everyone who tests positive is instructed to isolate at home and close contacts will be asked to quarantine for 14 days, according to a Clark County news release.
Clark County’s public health department spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong said it is collaborating with the company to implement additional controls to prevent infections whenever the facility reopens.
“Those controls include things like installing barriers between work stations, installing more hand-washing stations, staggering work shifts and lunch/break schedules,” she wrote in an email.
Hinerfeld said the company took steps to protect employees before the outbreak, including social distancing, temperature checks, providing masks to employees and offering expanded sick leave.
Food processing facilities have emerged as a major source of infection across the country, apparently because employees work indoors and are often in close proximity to one another. There have been at least two such workplace outbreaks in Oregon – in Astoria and Albany.
Despite the concentration of coronavirus outbreaks among workers at fruit, vegetable, seafood and meat processing facilities, health authorities say they haven’t seen evidence the coronavirus can be spread through food.
The World Health Organization says it is “highly unlikely” people would become infected by the virus through food because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.
As businesses in Oregon and Washington reopen amid a gradual loosening of coronavirus restrictions, Hinerfeld said his company’s experience should serve as a cautionary tale.
“We thought we had a pretty good plan in place and boy, it bit us in the rear end,” he said. “This genie is not back in the bottle.”
This article has been updated with additional cases confirmed.
— Mike Rogoway with updates by Janet Eastman