Clark County is operating on an unknown timeline for its application for relaxed Phase 2 precautions, as the coronavirus outbreak associated with Vancouver’s Firestone Pacific Foods continues to grow.
On Tuesday, the county announced four new cases in Firestone employees — raising that total to 69 infected employees — as well as an additional 15 cases in close contacts of those employees. The county has 510 confirmed cases, with 84 confirmed cases associated with the facility. At least 18 employees were asymptomatic when tested for the virus.
Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said he plans to speak with the state Department of Health this week about the county’s Phase 2 application, which, if approved, would allow restaurants, some retail shops, barbershops and beauty salons to reopen with safety measures in place.
Melnick said Public Health is working to gather more data on the Firestone outbreak before having that discussion with state Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman. He said that if the county can contain this outbreak through case investigation and contact notification, it will possibly strengthen Clark County’s chance of gaining Phase 2 status.
There is no evidence at this time that the outbreak has spread beyond Firestone employees and their close contacts, according to Public Health. Food made at the facility is safe for consumption, and there will be no recalls, Melnick said.
“We have this awful outbreak, and I feel horrible about this, but I’m hoping we can contain this facility and their households,” Melnick said. “I’m hoping we can keep it contained and not spread into the community.”
The first case associated with Firestone was confirmed May 17. Melnick said Public Health received a tip from the company on the same day regarding the positive test. On May 18, Public Health interviewed the first Firestone case, and the employee was isolated and their close contacts were asked to self-isolate.
Interviews on May 18 also uncovered two more cases associated with Firestone, and prompted Public Health to stop most production at the facility on May 19. Three additional cases were identified that day, and Public Health started coordinating with Vancouver Clinic to conduct universal testing at the facility. Six more cases were identified on Thursday, before an influx on cases on Friday.
Melnick said Public Health asked the facility to close over of safety concerns related to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Parts of Firestone’s operation remain open, and Melnick said he’s OK with that as long as the employees have tested negative for COVID-19, and are isolating when not at work.
“They were doing what they could, but there were concerns that there were some areas with infection prevention that they needed to deal with,” Melnick said.
Public Health, Firestone and the state Department of Labor & Industries are working with the facility to improve its safety measures, Melnick said. It’s important to change behavior for physical distancing, but Melnick also explained that engineering controls such as Plexiglas in between workers are more helpful to stopping transmission of COVID-19.
While Firestone has paid for coronavirus testing of its employees, it does not offer health benefits to all employees, Melnick said.
“These plants can be problematic there,” Melnick said.”You also have people who don’t have health insurance. So if they don’t have health insurance and feel sick, they may not be getting the health care, and testing they need. We can think about a lot of issues involved in this.”
A disproportionate toll
As state’s begin to ease physical distancing restrictions, outbreaks across the county have popped up in food processing plants.
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 47013, said he’s been concerned for weeks about a potential outbreak at food processing facilities in Clark County.
He mentioned how workers in those facilities have less power in regards to getting adequate safety protections, health insurance and sick leave. Those are not new concerns, Hamilton Rosales said.
Washington’s Hispanic population has borne a disproportionate brunt of the state’s COVID-19 cases. People of Hispanic descent make up 37 percent of the state’s cases and 24 percent of its hospitalizations, despite only being 13 percent of the state’s population, according to state Department of Health data.
Hamilton Rosales sent a letter to Firestone on Saturday, asking to speak with the company regarding safety concerns.
“It has taken a pandemic for the world to see what we already know,” Hamilton Rosales said. “These people are treated like a commodity and they are not. They are human beings.”
Staci Boehlke is the Family-Community Resource Center coordinator at nearby elementary school, Fruit Valley Community Learning Center. Boehlke said families at the school have been affected by the outbreak at the facility, though she did not provide specific numbers. She said the school is responding as needs arise.
“Right now the need is greater, the gaps are wider and the work continues to change daily,” she said. “We are ready to provide whatever support we can garner to help our families and our neighborhood through this new challenge.”
Boehlke said the district will likely gear up to provide additional food deliveries to families in the coming days, as well as working with organizations that could help families cover the costs of housing and utilities.
“We know this event will have ripple effects that we cannot yet understand or plan for, but we will be there for Fruit Valley,” Boehlke said.