SEATTLE — Washington state’s death toll from the coronavirus could be two to three times the current total because some people who died of virus-like symptoms early in the outbreak were never tested, health officials said Thursday.
As of Thursday, at least 1,037 people in Washington state have died from the disease, but health officials have identified 3,000 deaths dating back to Jan. 1, that involved symptoms like pneumonia or acute respiratory syndrome, which are commonly associated with COVID-19, said Katie Hutchinson, health statistics manager.
Since they occurred before the first case was identified in the state, officials are investigating those 3,000 deaths to determine whether they’re from coronavirus and should be added to the state death toll, Hutchinson said.
“It’s going to be extremely hard to figure out if any of these were covid-
related,” Hutchinson said. “So we’re trying to work on that.”
Having an accurate death count helps health officials plan for and prevent the disease, said Cathy Wasserman, state epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions.
“We want to understand as fully as we possibly can the impact of COVID-19 on our population,” she said. “And that means we want to understand the full spectrum of the disease and of course the COVID-19 deaths are the most severe end of the spectrum.”
Those details will help officials understand who is most at risk and what they’re seeing in terms of manifestations of the illness, she said. This will help them take actions to prevent transmissions and prevent deaths going forward, Wasserman said.
The rapid onslaught of coronavirus forced officials to part from their normal process of counting deaths, Hutchinson said. Their goal was to get the data out as quickly as possible, “in near-real time so immediate decisions could be made to protect the health of Washingtonians,” Hutchinson said.
Some COVID-19 deaths were easier to confirm. They included people who were already in the system after testing positive for the disease, she said.
They’ve also identified about 100 deaths that are not linked to a positive case, but “we can’t rule them in or out,” Hutchinson said. About five case involved covid-positive deaths involving gunshot wounds, she said.
“Our current dashboard reflects anybody that has died from covid irrespective of cause of death,” she said. The data has a 3% variance, she said.
“There’s a commitment to provide data as rapidly as possible and we have to balance that with our commitment to accuracy,” Wasserman said. “So the data we are publishing on our website every day are the most accurate data that we have on any given day with the intention to be extremely transparent and make the information as understandable as possible.”
By 10:30 Wednesday morning, a line of cars stretched three blocks surrounding Yakima School District’s Washington Middle School. More cars continued to arrive in anticipation of the weekly meal distribution, which is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to noon at several district schools.
“They start lining up at 9:30,” said Scott Izutsu, associate superintendent of business services for the district. “There have been times where I’ve been at a school and at 9 o’clock, the first car is there.”
Other cars pulled into the school parking lot for students to jump out for a walk-up pickup. Some days, the walk-up line stretches a block as well, according to an assistant principal at Washington Middle School.
The meals are available to all youths 18 and under as part of the district’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Districts statewide are offering similar meal services to ensure students and youths in the community are nourished during ongoing campus closures intended to prevent the spread of the respiratory virus.
The Yakima School District has far outpaced other districts in the state in the number of meals it has distributed. When school is in regular session, Yakima provides free breakfast and lunch to all of its 16,000 students because of a high level of need.
Since schools closed for the duration of the school year on March 13, Yakima School District has reported distributing 379,816 meals to local youths, according to the most recent data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. For comparison, the runner-up, Pasco School District in nearby Franklin County, reported 143,418 meals.
When the district began passing out meals, it was distributing a sack with one breakfast and lunch to youths each weekday at all school campuses. District employees ranging from teachers to office staff, cooks and custodians hand-packaged meals with items like fruits, veggies, main dishes and boxes of milk — a tedious process that required many hands daily, in addition to the distribution process itself.
Federal rules were soon adjusted to allow several days’ worth of meals to be distributed at once, allowing the district to move to weekly packages and pickup days to reduce potential staff exposure to the respiratory virus.
Distribution locations were also adjusted. Meals are distributed weekly at Eisenhower High School, Franklin Middle School, Garfield, Hoover, McClure and Ridgeview elementary schools, as well as Washington. Distribution at Barge-Lincoln Elementary School will resume on May 27. Children must be present.
On Wednesday, the district further consolidated efforts by launching prepacked, shelf-stable meal distributions with five breakfasts and five lunches per youth. The new system requires only a handful of food services staff across the district to compile each package with a set of meals. Then, on the pickup day, support staff stand curbside to hand them out.
At Washington this week, six tables were set up on the sidewalk, with two staff members at each. The first six cars would pull up beside them, staff would count the number of children in the car and place the appropriate bundles of food and milk on the table and step away. Then, the passengers would exit the car to load the goods before driving away, allowing the next shift of six cars to pull up.
A total of 49,770 meals were distributed districtwide on Wednesday alone.
While the district is serving fewer youths than it would on campus, Izutsu said the cost of the service is far greater. The district is paying staff hazard pay on top of their regular salary to compensate for the risk they are taking in the front-line service. In addition to that, the meals themselves are more costly, he said.
Ordinarily, each school meal averages out to cost $1.77. When school closures began, the cost of meals increased due in part to the demand for goods, said Izutsu, raising the average cost per meal to $2.55. The prepackaged meals cost even more, at about $3.67.
That’s a difference of around $90,000 more for Wednesday’s meal distribution alone than what the district would usually incur for the same number of meals.
But Izutsu said the prepackaged meals also lower the salary cost to the district and help reduce potential staff exposure, since fewer people gather in the days before distribution to prepare the meal packages.
“Can you really put a price on health?” he added.
The district ordinarily gets reimbursed for its meal distribution. But Izutsu said it is also hoping to see some of the federal CARES stimulus act funds come its way, to help cover some of the added costs of prepackaged goods and hazard pay, which he said would qualify for coverage.
“We’re tracking all the costs. We’re identifying the costs and the difference from the original,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll see that money.”
The increased costs come less than a year after the district severed a long-running contract with a food services company in an effort to remedy a $1.1 million budget deficit in this area alone.
Izutsu said the district is trying to determine summer meal distribution plans. Ordinarily, the district provides roughly 800 meals per day to low-income youths over the summer. This year, that need could be much greater.
“We’re not really sure what to expect,” he said.
Connecting with the communityIn the meantime, the weekly food distribution is not only an opportunity to nourish youth but to check in on them, said Nicole Rivera, office manager at Washington Middle School, who was among those passing out meal packages.
She said some district records of students’ contact information wasn’t correct, making it challenging for staff or teachers to reach them initially. The meal distribution is an opportunity to reconnect.
“A lot of (students) just miss us. They want to say hi,” said Rivera. “It’s nice to be able to talk to our families and get a hold of those kids we weren’t able to and get to know new families — our community.”
Workers at one of Yakima County’s apple packing houses filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board this week, alleging retaliation against workers who choose to strike.
The board is an independent agency of the federal government, responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law regarding collective bargaining and unfair labor practices.
The complaint alleges that Allan Bros., located in Naches, interrogated and threatened workers who chose to strike and disciplined an employee who brought strikers water.
Allan Bros. CEO Miles Kohl denied the complaint’s claims Thursday. He said agriculture operations are vital to the nation’s food supply and the company has “every interest and desire to maintain a healthy community and treat our employees with the respect, care and attention they deserve.”
“We understand and value our workers’ right to protest,” he said. “We have listened, acted, and will continue to evolve our best practices for the benefit of all our employees.”
The strike at Allan Bros. started May 7, with workers walking out to demand increased transparency about COVID-19 cases, improved safety and sanitation measures and hazard pay.
The strike was the first in a series of walkouts at seven fruit packing plants in the Yakima Valley, where employees made similar requests.
Kohl said previously that Allan Bros had started paying workers an additional $1 an hour, effective May 5.
The company issued face masks and face shields to all employees and adopted protocols recommended by the Yakima Health District after a May 8 site visit. Allan Bros also plans to hold jobs for striking workers who return to work, Kohl said.
“We have communicated to our employees their rights and protections and have followed through with those protections for all employees who protested and who have returned to work,” he said Thursday.
Protests at Allan Bros. continued Thursday, with two employees continuing a hunger strike they started Tuesday.
The workers’ two-page complaint, filed with the help of Columbia Legal Services and Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP and the farmworkers union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, alleges Allan Bros. has interrogated workers about their strike activity, threatened to discipline workers who join the strike, and used one-one-one conversations with employees promising benefits or wage hikes for nonstrikers in an attempt to stop the walkout.
Kohl said the complaint asserts that providing appreciation pay to essential workers violated their right to strike. That wasn’t the company’s intent, he said.
“During our good faith negotiations, employees wanted an increase in pay for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “To that end, we implemented a $1 per hour increase for employees who have been with us for 90 days or more.”
Kohl said the compensation also was in recognition of hardships faced by employees during the state’s stay-at-home order, such as additional expenses for child care and the increasing cost of groceries. He said no additional compensation or benefits beyond the $1-an-hour raise have been offered to those who refused to strike.
Kohl also said the company has not interrogated, disciplined or fired any strikers who walked out.
“However, we have an obligation to all of our employees to prevent harassment, discrimination, and to maintain safety,” he said. “To the extent that any one employee’s conduct violated our policies, it has been and will be consistently addressed.”
Kohl said Allan Bros is constantly adjusting its practices to address COVID-19. A May 8 review by the health district concluded the company was meeting established safety guidelines.
Allan Bros. was also inspected by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, which said the company met health and safety standards.
“We have implemented recommendations made to us by each agency,” Kohl said. “We provide and require face masks and face shields, implement social distancing, and utilize plastic barriers in areas where social distancing can be difficult to achieve.”
Familias Unidas por la Justicia sued the state in Skagit County court last month over an alleged lack of clear and enforceable guidelines for agricultural workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. President Ramon Torres said the Allan Bros. strikers have his union’s support.
“We are here to support these workers through whatever the company tries to throw at them,” he said. “The workers want to work, but not at the cost of their health and their families’ health.”
Columbia Legal Services said the National Labor Relationships Board contacted the workers’ representative on Wednesday to start an investigation.
Strike/Huelga Support Collective, a group of volunteer community members working with worker strike committees, has started a GoFundMe for striking Yakima Valley agricultural workers.
The organizers started the account to support the more than 300 agricultural workers in Yakima who have been on strike for the past two weeks, calling for hazard pay and guarantees of safe working conditions. The fund had raised close to $33,000 of a $100,000 goal from more than 600 donors as of Thursday afternoon.
Not everyone in the community has supported the strikers, however.
The Yakima County Sheriff’s office responded to calls at Allan Bros earlier this week after a man arrived on site with a gun and threatened to shoot the workers. The man was arrested for malicious harassment after he returned to the site and said he made the threat, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
Last week’s unemployment claims were the third-largest number since the coronavirus pandemic began, state data shows.
State Employment Security Department data shows that 3,813 Yakima County residents filed first-time unemployment claims for the week ending May 16, an increase of 822 from the week ending May 9. It represents a 27.5% increase.
By comparison, 293 people filed initial claims in the same time period in 2019.
The largest number of first-time claims in the county was 4,222 the week ending March 28, the same week Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order went into effect and closed down nonessential businesses, the department data shows. The following week, 4,008 people filed claims, making it the second-highest amount since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The largest group filing new claims last week were people working in educational services, said Don Meseck, ESD’s regional labor economist. ESD data show 706 people in that sector filed for unemployment, compared with 316 the week before. Health care workers filed 551 claims, compared to 605 the week before, with agricultural workers filing 438 claims last week.
Meseck attributed the high number of education filings to support staff who were let go with school closures.
As of last week, Yakima County had 16,219 continuing unemployment claims, a 7.4% increase from previous week, the state reported.