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Coronavirus
spotlight
Nearly 150 employees test positive for COVID-19, but Union Gap Costco remains open
  • Updated

So far, 145 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Union Gap Costco, but the store remains open while the Yakima Health District investigates.

Infected workers are in quarantine, the store is conducting sitewide testing and more cases are expected to be reported, the heath district said in a Tuesday news release.

The health district said it will continue to monitor the outbreak that is believed to have started before Christmas, when 68 workers tested positive for the virus.

Yakima County commissioners used the outbreak as an opportunity to again voice their dissatisfaction with Gov. Jay Inslee’s business restrictions aimed at slowing the virus’ spread.

Commissioners issued a statement Tuesday saying they agree with keeping the store open, but sharply criticized Inslee’s orders, which impact many small businesses, schools and churches.

They say those entities should be allowed the same opportunity to operate under the safety guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington Health Department.

“Governor Inslee’s continued nonsensical policy of labeling ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ businesses can today be judged definitively as an egregious and misguided policy, which it has been since its inception. Our local Costco store can remain safely open despite a known outbreak, and yet our schools, restaurants, gyms, theaters, and other businesses cannot,” commissioners said in their response.

Commissioners approved a proclamation Dec. 15 calling on Inslee to give local authorities more say in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

As cases began to surge prior to Thanksgiving, Inslee ordered new shutdowns Nov. 15 for restaurants, theaters and gyms. He later extended the restrictions through Jan. 4.

Yakima County surpassed 20,000 total COVID-19 cases Monday. From Dec. 5 through 18, the county averaged about 879.5 new cases per 100,000 people. The death toll since mid-March is approaching 300.

Seventy people were hospitalized with COVID-19 infections Tuesday in Yakima County.

Ongoing investigation

Health district officials said evidence indicates the Costco outbreak resulted from a “super-spreader event,” in which multiple people were infected at the same time.

The store is conducting sitewide testing, meaning all workers are being tested regardless of whether they were exposed to an infected person. Anyone who tests positive will be required to quarantine.

The Health District’s COVID-19 outbreak response team is working with the store to monitor the outbreak.

Outbreak response

The Health District has yet to recommend shutting down any businesses due to an outbreak, though some have closed voluntarily, the release said.

When an outbreak is identified at a business, the Yakima Health District’s outbreak response team requests information for all employees who have tested positive, including the departments in which they work and when they tested positive.

After reviewing that information, the response team consults the director of disease control and the health officer to determine how the business is to respond.

Health officials consider several factors, including whether a business is following COVID-19 safety precautions, evidence of ongoing transmission, increased risk of community exposure and whether the business can follow recommended facility sanitization guidelines.

Businesses that experience outbreaks are provided information about employee testing, return-to-work guidance and cleaning and disinfecting practices.

“When there is an outbreak reported, it does not matter the type or the size of the businesses, our Outbreak Response Team will respond to each one in the same, systematic way. Identifying positive cases, protecting the public, and working to contain the outbreak are the health district’s top priorities,” Andre Fresco, the health district’s executive director, said in Tuesday’s news release.

County businesses that experienced outbreaks have followed safety recommendations and haven’t shown ongoing transmission of the virus, the release said.


Local
spotlight
Track reopened for operations as cleanup work continues in Mabton train derailment
  • Updated

Three locomotives that tipped over in a train derailment last week near Mabton are now upright and the track is open for operations, a BNSF spokeswoman said.

Work continues to re-rail the other eight derailed cars and clean up spilled fuel, spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.

“All three locomotives are upright and have been staged by our tracks,” she said. “Environmental cleanup efforts with responders from BNSF and the Washington State Department of Ecology are also underway.”

A semi-truck hauling farm equipment collided with the 116-car train near State Route 22 and Phillips Road on Dec. 23, causing three locomotives and eight empty grain containers to derail.

Rail tracks were damaged and diesel fuel from the locomotives spilled. No one was seriously injured.

Work began immediately to restore the track and clean up the fuel.

About 6,000 gallons of fuel were pumped from the locomotives and work is now underway to clean the more than 3,000 gallons of fuel that leaked into the soil, Wallace said.

The track was repaired and reopened last week, she said.

BSNF is working with the state Department of Ecology to remove the spilled fuel from soil as it continues to remove the other tipped rail cars.

Some contaminated soil already has been removed and stockpiled, said Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder.

Soil will have to be dug out and replaced with clean soil, she said.

Contaminated soil will be shipped to a special landfill where it will be treated, Redfield-Wilder said.

“Once everything is out of the way they can continue cleaning up remaining petroleum contaminated soil,” she said. “Site work continues this week.”


Business
AP
Trump's $2,000 checks stall in Senate as GOP blocks vote

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s push for bigger $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks stalled out Tuesday in the Senate as Republicans blocked a swift vote proposed by Democrats and split within their own ranks over whether to boost spending or defy the White House.

The roadblock mounted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not be sustainable as pressure mounts. Trump wants the Republican-led chamber to follow the House and increase the checks from $600 for millions of Americans. A growing number of Republicans, including two senators in runoff elections on Jan. 5 in Georgia, have said they will support the larger amount. But most GOP senators oppose more spending, even if they are also wary of bucking Trump.

Senators will be back at it Wednesday as McConnell is devising a way out of the political bind, but the outcome is highly uncertain.

“There’s one question left today: Do Senate Republicans join with the rest of America in supporting $2,000 checks?” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said as he made a motion to vote.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said some of the $600 payments might be sent by direct deposit to Americans’ bank accounts as early as Tuesday night. Mnuchin tweeted that paper checks will begin to go out Wednesday.

The showdown over the $2,000 checks has thrown Congress into a chaotic year-end session just days before new lawmakers are set to be sworn into office for the new year. It’s preventing action on another priority — overturning Trump’s veto on a sweeping defense bill that has been approved every year for 60 years.

Saying little, McConnell signaled an alternative approach to Trump’s checks that may not divide his party so badly, but may result in no action at all.

The GOP leader filed new legislation late Tuesday linking the president’s demand for bigger checks with two other Trump priorities — repealing protections for tech companies like Facebook or Twitter that the president complained are unfair to conservatives as well the establishment of a bipartisan commission to review the 2020 presidential election he lost to President-elect Joe Biden.

“The Senate will begin a process,” the GOP leader said. He said little more, only that he would bring the president’s demand for the $2,000 checks and other remaining issues “into focus.”

The president’s last-minute push for bigger checks leaves Republicans deeply split between those who align with Trump’s populist instincts and those who adhere to what had been more traditional conservative views against government spending. Congress had settled on smaller $600 payments in a compromise over the big, year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.

Liberal senators led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont who support the relief aid are blocking action on the defense bill until a vote can be taken on Trump’s demand for $2,000 for most Americans.

“The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Sanders said as he also tried to force a vote on the relief checks. “Working families need help now.” But McConnell objected a second time.

The GOP blockade is causing turmoil for some as the virus crisis worsens nationwide and Trump amplifies his unexpected demands.

The two GOP senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, announced Tuesday they support Trump’s plan for bigger checks as they face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

“I’m delighted to support the president,” said Perdue on Fox News. Loeffler said in an interview on Fox that she, too, backs the boosted relief checks.

Trump repeated his demand in a tweet ahead of Tuesday’s Senate session: ”$2000 for our great people, not $600!”

Following Trump’s lead, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, among the party’s potential 2024 presidential hopefuls, are pushing the party in the president’s direction.

“We’ve got the votes. Let’s vote today,” Hawley tweeted.

Other Republicans panned the bigger checks saying the nearly $400 billion price tag was too high, the relief is not targeted to those in need and Washington has already dispatched ample sums on COVID aid.

“We’ve spent $4 trillion on this problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The House vote late Monday to approve Trump’s request was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago, during a brief Christmas Eve session, Republicans blocked Trump’s sudden demand for bigger checks as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.

As Trump spent days fuming from his private club in Florida, where he is spending the holidays, millions of Americans saw jobless aid lapse and the nation risked a federal government shutdown Tuesday.

Dozens of Republicans calculated it was better to link with Democrats to increase the pandemic payments rather than buck the outgoing president and constituents counting on the money. House Democrats led passage, 275-134, but 44 Republicans joined almost all Democrats for a robust two-thirds vote of approval.

It’s highly possible that McConnell will set up votes ahead on both the House-passed measure supporting Trump’s $2,000 checks as well as his own new version linking it with the repeal of tech company liability shield in “section 230” of communications law as well as the new presidential election review commission.

That’s a process that almost ensures neither bill will pass.

Trump’s push could fizzle out in the Senate but the debate over the size and scope of the package — $900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies — is potentially one last confrontation before the new Congress is sworn in Sunday.

For now, the $600 checks are set to be delivered, along with other aid, among the largest rescue packages of its kind.

The COVID-19 portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost — this time $300, through March 14 — as well as the popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.

Americans earning up to $75,000 will qualify for the direct $600 payments, which are phased out at higher income levels, and there’s an additional $600 payment per dependent child.

Biden supports the $2,000 checks and said Tuesday the aid package is merely a “down payment” on what he plans to deliver once in office.

Economists said a $600 check will help, but that it’s a far cry from the spending power that a $2,000 check would provide for the economy.

“It will make a big difference whether it’s $600 versus $2,000,” said Ryan Sweet, an economist with Moody’s.

The president also objected to foreign aid funding that his own administration had requested and vowed to send Congress “a redlined version” with spending items he wants removed. But those are merely suggestions to Congress. Democrats said they would resist such cuts.

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Colvin reported from West Palm Beach, Florida. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Ashraf Khalil in Washington and Matt Ott in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.


State
AP
1st reported US case of COVID-19 variant found in Colorado

DENVER — The first reported U.S. case of the COVID-19 variant that’s been seen in the United Kingdom has been discovered in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday, adding urgency to efforts to vaccinate Americans.

The variant was found in a man in his 20s who is in isolation southeast of Denver in Elbert County and has no travel history, state health officials said.

Elbert County is a mainly rural area of rolling plains at the far edge of the Denver metro area that includes a portion of Interstate 70, the state’s main east-west highway.

Colorado Politics reported there is a second suspected case of the variant in the state according to Dwayne Smith, director of public health for Elbert County. Both of the people were working in the Elbert County community of Simla. Neither of them are residents of that county — expanding the possibility of the variant’s spread throughout the state.

The Colorado State Laboratory confirmed the virus variant, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified.

Scientists in the U.K. believe the variant is more contagious than previously identified strains. The vaccines being given now are thought to be effective against the variant, Colorado health officials said in a news release.

For the moment, the variant is likely still rare in the U.S., but the lack of travel history in the first case means it is spreading, probably seeded by travelers from Britain in November or December, said scientist Trevor Bedford, who studies the spread of COVID-19 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“Now I’m worried there will be another spring wave due to the variant,” Bedford said. “It’s a race with the vaccine, but now the virus has just gotten a little bit faster.”

Public health officials are investigating other potential cases and performing contact tracing to determine the spread of the variant throughout the state.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new COVID-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious. The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority, and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all COVID-19 indicators, very closely,” Polis said.

Polis and state health officials are expected hold a news conference Wednesday.

The discovery of the new variant led the CDC to issue new rules on Christmas Day for travelers arriving to the U.S. from the U.K., requiring they show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Worry has been growing about the variant since the weekend before Christmas, when Britain’s prime minister said a new strain of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. The nation’s first variant case was identified in southeast England.

Dozens of countries barred flights from the U.K., and southern England was placed under strict lockdown measures. Scientists say there is reason for concern but the new strains should not cause alarm.

Japan announced Monday it would bar entry of all nonresident foreign nationals as a precaution against the new strain.

New variants of the coronavirus have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population. The slight modifications are how scientists track the spread of a virus from one place to another.

But if the virus has significant mutations, one concern is that current vaccines might no longer offer the same protections. Although that’s a possibility to watch for over time with the coronavirus, experts say they don’t believe it will be the case with the latest variant.

The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, has also been found in Canada, Italy, India and the United Arab Emirates.

South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The variant, known as 501.V2, is dominant among the newly confirmed infections in South Africa, according to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy.

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This story has been corrected to refer to the announcement of the new variant by the British Prime Minister taking place the weekend before Christmas.

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AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson in Washington state contributed.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


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