State agencies will release additional guidance for agricultural operations Wednesday to address COVID-19 outbreaks, officials said during an online press briefing Tuesday.
Two weeks ago, a team of infection specialists from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in the Yakima Valley, helping the Yakima Health District respond to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.
The initial response focused on nursing homes, adult family homes and other care facilities. But over time, it became clear that fruit packing houses and other agricultural and food production centers also contributed to the outbreak, said Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases.
“What has occurred since that time is a very clear need for statewide guidance for factory and farm settings,” he said during the briefing Tuesday.
Lindquist was one of several state officials who spoke during the briefing.
Out of the 180 outbreaks statewide at long-term care facilities, about 11 were in Yakima County. In comparison, there were 68 in non-health care settings, and most of them were from food production and processing plants, including some in the Yakima Valley.
The state defines an outbreak as two or more positive cases in a facility within 14 days.
A new order from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office will directly address agricultural facilities, said David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff. It will require companies to comply with safety provisions in order to continue operating, he said.
The guidance will incorporate guidelines from the CDC and the state Department of Labor and Industries, Lindquist said. He noted that the Yakima Health District has been working closely with local companies to put these measures in place.
Part of the guidance will include recommendations regarding personal protective equipment. The state is starting to make progress securing PPE supplies, said Reed Schuler, senior policy adviser for the governor’s office.
Previously, the state’s efforts were focused on requests that revolved around workers who worked directly with COVID-19 patients, such as health care workers, Schuler said. Now the state can better respond to requests from those who work in congregate settings, such as fruit packing houses.
“Our state emergency operations center has been working with county emergency management departments to encourage them to be putting in requests for such levels of PPE equipment and have been much better in filling this tier of needs,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of about 25 Yakima Valley fruit packing house workers traveled to Olympia on Tuesday.
The workers have staged protests and strikes at several fruit packing houses throughout the Yakima Valley this month.
They visited the state Department of Labor and Industries to deliver about 200 petitions and declarations from workers, said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a Skagit County-based farmworkers union.
In those statements, the workers describe working conditions in recent months as well as why they have been striking.
The union, along with the United Farm Workers, filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and state Department of Labor of Industries, stating that it wanted additional regulations and stronger enforcement measures for the agriculture industry.
Familias Unidas has been assisting Yakima Valley strikers and coordinated the trip to Olympia.
“These workers want to hold the agencies accountable,” Franks said. “They want to make sure these petitions get to the appropriate people. This issue, it goes beyond Yakima, it goes anywhere there are workers waiting for some kind of relief or some kind of help.”
Back in the Yakima Valley, strikes continued at Matson Fruit, Columbia Reach Pack and Allan Bros.
Matson Fruit officials and a committee representing striking workers met several times over the last 24 hours but could not reach an agreement on pay, Jordan Matson said in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic.
“While discouraging for all parties, we appreciate their right to protest and hope we can reach agreement soon,” Matson wrote. “All team members can return anytime to their prior position.”
Workers at Monson Fruit in Selah and Frosty Packing in Yakima returned to work this week after reaching agreements with owners late last week.
There was a bit of confusion over whether there was an agreement in place at Frosty Packing, but ultimately strikers agreed to return to work while ironing out the remaining details of a 12-week safety program.
Under that program, workers would receive a $200 bonus if they adhere to social distancing and sanitizing recommendations.
The company will be meeting with a worker’s group this week, said Brian Bruner, operations manager for Frosty.
“We were going to take this week and get the program developed with (worker) input,” he said.