COVID-19 can be lethal. That isn’t subject to debate.
But what is the COVID-19 death rate in Yakima County?
Or, to put it another way, just how bad is it here?
Calculating the number of deaths by the number of confirmed cases shows Yakima County with a fatality rate lower than many Washington counties.
But using a population model — calculating the number of deaths per 100,000 people — shows Yakima County with the highest death rate in the state.
The two approaches frame the debate about the threat posed by the coronavirus. It’s deadly — but in Yakima County, how deadly?
A highly criticized study by a Stanford University researcher suggests more testing would reveal the virus isn’t as deadly as initially perceived. The study has yet to undergo a peer review.
Other researchers say the virus’ fatality rate is undercounted by tens of thousands of deaths because many may have died at home early in the pandemic without being tested.
At least one local lawmaker — Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima — has joined a few other state lawmakers in a lawsuit seeking to lift Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, saying the virus doesn’t pose the risk initially anticipated.
State and local health experts reject the claim, citing the rapid spread of the virus and increasing deaths.
Lifting the order that has brought the economy to a crawl would be a mistake right now, said Dr. Tanny Davenport, who has been on the front lines treating patients at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital.
“It worries me when I see our community say, ‘Hey, our community can open up,’ ” he said. “We’re still seeing our cases go up on average by 70, 80 cases a day.”
As of Friday, 81 people had died of the virus in Yakima County and confirmed cases totaled 2,775, according to the Yakima Health District.
Calculating deaths as a percentage of confirmed cases, Yakima County would have a COVID-19 death rate of 2.9% — lower than most other counties in the state reporting such deaths. Statewide, the rate is 5.5%, according the state Department of Health.
Here are other rates calculated from Thursday’s data:
Statewide, there were 1,044 deaths and 19,117 confirmed cases as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Health’s website.
The majority of cases in Yakima County are concentrated in younger populations, between 20 and 50 years old, local health officials said.
Younger people are less likely to have severe symptoms that can lead to hospitalization and death, said Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilian Bravo.
“This may be why we are seeing a lower death rate,” she said. “It is still too soon to make definitive conclusions, but this is a trend that we think may be impacting that mortality rate due to COVID-19.”
Davenport said basing Yakima County’s death rate on confirmed cases doesn’t provide a true assessment.
Yakima County is conducting more tests than other counties, he said.
“We’re testing many who are asymptomatic. That means our number is diluted,” Davenport said.
Asymptomatic cases are those who are infected but experience no symptoms and they account for about 20% of cases in the county, he said.
Yakima County has administered 10,382 tests, which is a rate of 4,164 tests per 100,000 people. That’s a rate ahead of King County, which has administered the most tests at 85,854, for a rate of 3,969 per 100,000 people. Test data was provided by the state Department of Health as of Monday.
Yakima County has a population of more than 249,000 compared to King County’s population of nearly 2.2 million.
Davenport said using the population base provides a better model to gauge the gravity of COVID-19 deaths here.
“I would definitely say that if you look at our numbers per 100,000 people, that’s the best reflection of how serious this is for Yakima County,” he said.
Yakima County’s death rate is 31.7 per 100,000 people compared to King County’s 24.5 per 100,000, according to Thursday’s data.
Benton County’s death rate of 30.9 per 100,000 is similar to Yakima’s while Snohomish County’s rate is 16.8 per 100,000. Pierce County’s rate is 8.3 per 100,000.
When the county first began counting cases in mid-March, officials at Memorial anticipated the hospital being overrun with COVID-19 patients by April 8.
Fortunately that didn’t happen.
Davenport and health district officials attribute much of that to Gov. Inslee’s statewide “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, which closed all non-essential businesses and halted social gatherings.
Davenport also credits the hospital’s decision to suspend all elective procedures as well as the public’s willingness to adhere to social distancing, wearing masks in public and frequent hand washing.
On Wednesday morning, there were 34 people hospitalized with COVID-19 countywide. Of those, 23 were at Memorial, with eight of them on respirators, Davenport said.
Fifteen other sick patients at the hospital that day were awaiting test results, he said.
“Our hospital isn’t as busy because we’ve done our due diligence of shutting down elective procedures,” Davenport said.
The hospital’s intensive care unit is busy with COVID-19 patients and last week several patients were transferred to hospitals on the west side of the state, where they are receiving a higher level of care, Davenport said.
Patients who are transferred outside the county are not counted in the health district’s daily updates, Bravo said.
However, patients from here who die at facilities outside the county are included in the health district’s daily update, she said.
The ability to transfer patients has helped prevent the hospital from being overrun, he said.
“Luckily the state hasn’t been overrun and we’ve been able to transfer patients,” Davenport said.
Davenport said Wednesday he didn’t have the number of patients transferred the previous week at his fingertips but said the hospital would provide that information. On Friday, Memorial spokeswoman Bridget Turrell said she couldn’t immediately provide numbers because multiple departments were involved in the patient transfers.
Astria Health, which operates hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish, declined to provide any information about the number of COVID-19 patients.
Critics of the state’s stay-at-home order, such as state Rep. Corry, claim the virus mostly threatens older people with underlying health conditions.
Davenport disagrees, saying his hospital is treating several patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
In a May 7 story, he said young, healthy people at the hospital have died from the virus.
“There are still people who are intubated and dying who are not in a high-risk category,” he told Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Janelle Retka. “There are individuals who have come to our hospital who have been healthy, who have been young, who have been intubated and passed away from COVID-19.”
Davenport cited a death involving a patient in their 30s, and three others involving patients in their 40s.
Of the 79 deaths in the county, only one was confirmed as not having underlying health conditions — a person in their 50s — while another remained undetermined, Bravo said.
Davenport said his definition of underlying health conditions may differ from the health district’s, which he says is “fairly wide.”
Bravo said patients with any chronic health condition are classified as having underlying health issues.
Davenport said his definition isn’t as broad.
“People with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma — those people are still healthy and doing fine until they get COVID-19,” he said. “People with asthma, may be underlying, but I don’t expect them to get intubated and die.”
A majority of the deaths — 71 — have involved people over 60. People over 80 accounted for the largest segment of deaths — 38.
At least 69 deaths were connected to outbreaks at nursing homes, Bravo said.
Davenport said as the virus continues to spread, the hospital is seeing an increase in younger patients.
“I think there is a misperception by the lay public thinking ‘This is only going to affect my grandparents,’ ” he said. “We do have people in the hospital right now in their 30s, 40s and 50s being taken care of for COVID complications.”
Striking workers and company officials at Monson Fruit in Selah came to an agreement Friday.
Workers and management at Jack Frost almost did.
Walkouts that started May 7 spread to six Yakima fruit packing operations. Workers demanded improved social distancing and sanitizing measures to protect themselves against the coronavirus, as well as hazard pay and salary increases.
Inspectors from the Yakima Health District cleared the companies, saying they meet the recommended guidelines. The Yakima Herald-Republic has made a public records request for inspection results from the state's Department of Labor and Industries but was told records would not be available until June 22. Tim Church, a spokesman for LNI, said some inspection reports — including at Allan Bros — have not yet been finalized.
A committee of Monson workers said Friday that the company’s solution had focused on safety measures, and strikers would go back to work while continuing to negotiate for wage increases. Jack Frost management also pitched a proposal to workers focused on safety that almost led to an agreement with workers.
Meanwhile, workers continued to strike at Matson Fruit in Selah, Columbia Reach Pack and Hansen Fruit in Yakima, and Allan Bros. Fruit in Naches, with the huelgas — strikes — planned to continue throughout the weekend.
Dulce Gutierrez, with the Washington State Labor Council, said negotiations between growers and workers continued Friday.
“There’s been progress made at all the warehouses still on strike with sanitation and safety,” Gutierrez said. “That is already a victory for every huelga that’s happening.”
Kathy and Adrian Mendoza, a sibling duo who had been on strike at Monson, said the company had addressed the worker concerns about cleaning, social distancing and safety. Workers will continue to negotiate for wage increases while working.
“The representative came out and gave a few words and everybody was really happy,” Kathy Mendoza said. “They are all happy that this is over.”
Adrian Mendoza thanked everyone who supported the workers, including people he said came from Tacoma, Oregon and New York to support the strikers’ cause.
“It was not easy for us to do this, but we did it and there slowly will be progress,” he said. “It was definitely worth the fight. We are happy that our voice is finally being heard.”
Monson Fruit management did not return comment prior to publication of this story.
Workers gathered in a circle Friday afternoon at Jack Frost Fruit for a confidential briefing from a worker committee.
Maureen Darras, of Community to Community Development in Bellingham, said the committee had been meeting with company leadership for the past week.
“Workers are showing across the Yakima Valley that they know how to negotiate and they know what they need,” she said. “They’ve been strong and motivated. We’ve just been here for support.”
Darras added that female workers have been at the forefront of the strikes, from organizing the huelgas to leading chants.
“The reason women are leading the strikes is that they are the ones most directly impacted,” she said. “Most of the workers on the pack lines, where people are working back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder, are women.”
Darras said men have walked out of jobs in areas where social distancing is more possible — such as cold storage or the shipping or repacking — in solidarity with the women.
Earlier, the workers had formed a circle to share their reasons for striking. Many of the men said they were concerned about the well-being of their mothers, aunts, or grandmothers who worked at the company, Darras said.
Arely Perez, a Frosty employee who is part of the worker committee, said worker concerns about social distancing and sanitizing have been addressed by the company, though workers were not granted hazard pay or salary increases.
“We’ve won a lot,” she said. “We will be going back to work next week. We want to thank the community and everyone who supported us.”
Brian Bruner, operations manager at Jack Frost, said the company had pitched a new 12-week program aimed at improved safety to workers as its negotiations proposal. Workers who adhere to the social distancing and sanitizing recommendations for that period will receive a $200 bonus at the end of the 12 weeks, he said.
Bruner said the proposal shied away from the requests for hazard pay or salary increases to keep the focus on safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For us, it was about safety, and for our workers it was the same,” he said around 4 p.m. Friday. “It was painful to have the crew divided. We’re really pleased with the outcome, and we’re excited to welcome everyone back on Tuesday.”
But that had changed by Friday evening.
Bruner said workers had contacted him after the 4 p.m. phone call to inform him they had additional demands, including written documents. Bruner said that he had no additional information about what the workers might need to come to an agreement.
“I’m not sure that we are 100% at an agreement,” he said. “There will have to be more conversations. We are 100% on board with any safety-wise requests.”
As for the remaining strikes on Friday:
Matson Fruit leadership met with a five-member team of worker representatives Thursday. Manager Jordan Matson said he received written demands for improved working conditions and permanent pay increases.
Matson said the company has committed to immediately spending an additional $75,000 on accommodations for dealing with the pandemic. He also signed an agreement to continue good faith discussions with the worker team, keeping them informed of health and safety issues that might surface at the company.
He presented that agreement Friday morning to workers, who asked for time to review the document before signing it. He said two worker representatives signed the agreement as of Friday afternoon and that he plans to meet with the team again Monday.
Rosa Leon, an employee at Matson Fruit who is part of the worker committee, said workers are happy with how negotiations are progressing.
“They are listening to us and agreeing to almost every point,” Leon said. “They have also asked for our suggestions on how they can make the workplace better and what’s working.
“For our boss to ask for our opinion, that’s a good thing. It’s a big relief, because today is our 11th day on strike.”
Strikers at Columbia Reach in Yakima held a new set of signs on Friday, including one that read, “WE ARE READY TO WORK — NEGOTIATIONS.”
Columbia Reach did not return calls for comment prior to publication of this article.
Julieta Pulido, a member of the Columbia Reach workers’ committee, said attempts to petition have been unsuccessful. Pulido said the committee submitted a document to company leadership Tuesday that reached the owner, whom she said “decided he wanted to wait.” Workers were supposed to get an update Friday. But as of Friday afternoon, Pulido said that communication hadn’t happened.
Pulido, who is five months pregnant and works at the company to support herself, said several strikers have decided to go back to work, given that no resolution seems to be in sight. But she will not.
“I understand that people have bills to pay, but I believe in this cause,” she said. “The main reason we walked out is because we feel unsafe at work, and we want them to take the safety measures seriously.”
Pulido said workers stay motivated by focusing on their right to a safe workplace. Community support also has helped.
“There has been a lot of support,” she said. “That’s what keeps us going.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Yakima Health District has completed reviews that found grower facilities to be meeting guidelines, with inspection results from the State's Department of Labor and Industries still pending.