Drive-thru chain Dutch Bros. Coffee announced over the weekend that it had confirmed a case of COVID-19 among the staff at one of its Hazel Dell coffee stands. The stand at 9913 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave. was closed Saturday for a deep cleaning.
The employee was advised to self-isolate for 14 days, according to a press release from the company. Dutch Bros. said it is working with public health officials on safety protocols, and had previously implemented measures including closing walk-up windows and temporarily prohibiting personal mugs at drive-thrus.
The news comes about a week after Clark County public health officials announced a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak at the Fruit Valley facility of Firestone Pacific Foods, which freezes and packages fruit. Testing continued throughout last week, and as of Monday, 77 plant employees and 47 of their close contacts, such as friends and family, had tested positive.
The cases highlight the challenge of avoiding COVID-19 transmission in workplaces — especially where employees typically operate in close quarters.
The fight to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak is a constant struggle, and manufacturers have stressed the importance of remaining vigilant even as the economy slowly reopens and activities resume.
Daily screenings, social distancing, face coverings, modified shift times and physical barriers are all mainstays at manufacturing and production facilities, and companies that spoke to The Columbian also emphasized the need to focus on employee education.
Pat McDonnell, vice president of operations at silicon wafer manufacturer SEH America, said the company watches for situations like the Firestone outbreak to see if there are lessons to be learned, or if there are additional safety measures that the company could add to its own operations.
“We keep adding more and more things that we’re learning, not just from the Fruit Valley thing but across the country,” he said. “We’re always picking up on stuff we might want to look at.”
Some SEH employees have called out sick, McDonnell said, and the company has been following up with them regularly, but so far there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases among the staff.
Another Vancouver fruit packing company, Neil Jones Food Company, has implemented its own list of safety measures, and they seem to be working so far — HR director Gale Baird said the company has had no positive COVID-19 cases or known exposures among its staff. But the outbreak at Firestone is a reminder that the virus will continue to circulate, she said, even when the county is able to move to new phases of reopening.
“It just shows that we can’t presume that everything’s going to be over just because we’re in a different phase of reopening,” she said. “We have to stay diligent constantly.”
Kevin Proctor, president of corporate consulting firm ABK Consulting Group, has been working with the nonprofit group Impact Washington to conduct coronavirus workplace safety evaluations. Most companies start from the same place, he said — the manufacturing guidelines released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office May 12 — but everyone does it a little differently.
“It’s a pretty tall order for manufacturers, but I’ve found manufacturers who have gone above and beyond,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, there have been manufacturers who have gotten almost everything right, but undermined their progress by missing small details, such as reusing the same towel during regular sanitation sweeps.
Employee break rooms and kitchens tend to be a major problem area, he said, due to their often small size and shared equipment like microwave ovens and vending machines. And even if the tables are spaced apart, the employees will still be walking around the room with masks off in order to eat. Proctor said some of the places he’s audited have ended up just closing their lunchrooms.
“They request employees bring food with them and eat in their cars,” he said. “And it’s a beautiful time of year to do that.”
Another big challenge is making sure employees follow the rules outside of work, he said, both in terms of avoiding close contact and taking their own temperatures, if the employer decides to ask them to do so.
Food manufacturers have to follow essentially the same safety rules as other manufacturers, and in theory those facilities should have a head start because workers already need some personal protective equipment such as gloves and smocks, according to Craig Doan, chief food scientist at Impact Washington.
Impact Washington’s assessments have only found small misses so far, he said, but he noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at meat packing plants, with violations ranging from a lack of social distancing on the floor to shared housing or carpooling among workers.
In a press conference call last week, Firestone CEO Josh Hinerfeld said the company had been following recommended steps from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since March. Each employee’s temperature was taken as they arrived for work. More rules were implemented in April, he said, including requiring all employees to wear masks.
Hinerfeld pointed to social distancing enforcement as one of the areas where the company struggled in the weeks leading up to the outbreak — particularly in areas outside of the plant floor.
“We could have done better,” he said. “Through this process, we learned that we didn’t do enough.”
The plant’s break room didn’t have enough space for staff to be 6 feet apart, he said, so the company rented a canopy and set it up with tables and chairs outside. They later put other measures in place such as removing the microwave ovens and shutting off the drinking fountain.
Asymptomatic cases were another problem, Hinerfeld said. Seventy employees had tested positive at the time of the press call, and Hinerfeld said 61 of them never showed any symptoms, meaning there was no fever for the temperature checks to detect.
“I thought that was stunning, and I think it explains why we weren’t catching it in our screening exercise,” he said.
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