Clark County was not among the group of Washington counties given the green light Saturday to move into Phase 2 of reopening, a delay linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 at a Vancouver food processing plant.
On Friday, the county applied for the variance that would allow it to relax some of the social-distancing measures that have been in place since mid-March. Just a few hours later, news broke of an outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods in Vancouver’s Fruit Valley neighborhood.
At least 38 employees at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
Clark County’s application to move into Phase 2 is now “on pause until further discussion next week due to outbreak investigations,” a press release from the state’s Joint Information Center stated. An application from Kittitas County is also on hold for the same reason.
The outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods may be the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases at a single workplace in the greater Portland metro area, save among workers in the health care sector, according to an interview reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director, said in a media release Saturday evening that his department had been working closely with Firestone Pacific Foods, Washington Labor & Industries and Vancouver Clinic.
“While this outbreak is unfortunate, our response demonstrates we have the confidence and capability to respond to situations like this,” Melnick said.
Production at the Fruit Valley facility has been halted. Testing of Firestone employees continued Saturday, and Clark County Public Health plans to provide another update on the number of infected workers on Tuesday.
Up until the Firestone outbreak, Clark County’s infection rate had met the qualifications set forth by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office in order to qualify for Phase 2: It could demonstrate fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, while meeting its testing goals. Overall, cases in the county had been on the decline since mid-April, with no new coronavirus deaths for a week.
Seven other counties — Cowlitz, Grant, Island, Jefferson, Mason, Pacific and San Juan — were approved for the variance by Inslee’s office on Saturday. Statewide, 21 counties are now permitted to move into Phase 2.
Under Phase 2, restaurants can operate at 50 percent capacity, though bar seating is still prohibited. Camping in groups of fewer than five people is allowed, and certain personal and domestic services such as nannying, housecleaning, and hairdressing can resume. Some real estate activities and in-store retail may also reopen.
In the media release, the county’s public health department clarified that it does not have a timeline for when Clark County may be permitted to move into Phase 2, in light of the latest outbreak.
“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. “Public Health’s efforts during this outbreak show they have the ability to effectively respond to outbreaks in order to keep our community healthy.”