A1 A1
Gov. Inslee tours the Wenatchee mass vaccination site

WENATCHEE — Gov. Jay Inslee toured the Town Toyota Center’s mass vaccination site Wednesday and expressed his appreciation for the effort made by local leaders and volunteers.

The Town Toyota Center is one of the most effective vaccination sites in the state, reaching 1,100 vaccinations a day, Inslee said. Inslee gave a pin to Washington State National Guard Lt. A.J. Davis for his work helping manage the vaccination site and named him the Washingtonian of the day.

“We just want to tell you how impressive it is,” Inslee said. “I’m going to tell this story statewide. I love the fact that people are getting access to this with people who don’t have computers; they can use a phone.”

Inslee also visited Chelan Fruit after his trip to the Town Toyota Center. Chelan Fruit is one of the first fruit packing companies in the state to start vaccinating agricultural workers. Wednesday was the official start date to move to the next phase of vaccinations, expanding access to essential workers, including ag workers.

“Because some of our agricultural workers who are doing this incredible work putting food on our table have actually been bitten by this COVID the worse,” Inslee said.

During his time at the Town Toyota Center, Inslee watched Kathy Robb, a volunteer, fill a syringe with Moderna vaccine. Robb demonstrated how she had to mix the vaccine and flick the syringe to remove air bubbles. Inslee said it was the first time he had actually seen the process for the COVID-19 vaccine.

One volunteer said they were happy to help vaccinate as many people as possible to get the state reopened.

“We’re starting that,” Inslee said.

The state’s focus going forward will be on improving equity, he said. Latinos in Washington state have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. They make up about 13% of the population, but have made up about 30% of the disease burden.

“So this has not been a fair virus,” Inslee said.

Inslee said he recognizes there have been some problems with online vaccine registration systems, but that the state’s systems are improving. In the bigger picture, a lot of agencies have come together quickly to start a large operation, he said.

“The frustration has been significant, there is no question of this, but when I look at the system, 85% of the problem is we just don’t have enough vaccines,” Inslee said.

The state may consider requiring people to use vaccination cards for activities or travel in the future, but they have no plans to do that right now, he said.

“We don’t have any immediate plans for a vaccine passport or anything like that,” Inslee said.

Washington health officials race to vaccinate farmworkers as more front-line employees become eligible

YAKIMA — For the past year, masks, plastic shielding, temperature checks, tests and endless rounds of sanitation have been the main weapons deployed in an effort to protect employees at the Kershaw Companies fruit processing plant from the coronavirus pandemic.

That struggle soon will enter a new — and hopefully decisive phase — as the 300 men and women who now process apples, pears, cherries and other fruit at the plant northwest of Yakima, and the 280 workers laboring in company orchards, become eligible for vaccines. The vaccine will not be a job requirement but will be strongly encouraged through a cash bonus and a paid hour off to get a shot.

“We finalized our plan in February when we knew that it was slowly going to become available,” said Chafeka Abdellatif, human resources manager for Kershaw. “Our foreign workers, our domestic workers — anyone who wants to get it will get $100.”

These employees are part of a broad wave of front-line workers in food processing, agriculture and the seafood industry who — regardless of age — are eligible to be vaccinated Washington in a campaign that kicked off Wednesday.

This new immunization push — which also includes workers in public transit, corrections and grocery stores, along with pregnant women and those with disabilities that put them at high risk — comes as vaccine supply expands. Most restaurant workers are not yet eligible.

Employers are networking with health care providers to try to quickly reach the workers at the backbone of our food production and distribution system, who are often laboring in remote areas without access to easy transportation.

Providers also are thinking about how to persuade workers to get vaccines, even those who may be reluctant.

The workers who became eligible Wednesday have helped feed the nation during a harrowing 12 months when outbreaks sickened and killed some within their ranks. Washington health officials recorded 117 COVID-19 outbreaks in food manufacturing and 159 in agriculture. Staffing shortages also forced slowdowns or temporary shutdowns of processing plants.

In early May, Yakima County was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots, with the highest infection rate on the West Coast. Some workers in fruit processing plants walked off the job amid concerns about safety and the lack of hazard pay.

With farmworkers, “we know this is one of the communities, one of the sectors most disproportionately impacted from COVID,” said Katie Meehan, Equitable Policy and Access Manager for the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s clear from our outbreak data.”

Foreign farmworkers have become an increasing presence in Washington agriculture. More than 20,000 are recruited to the state each year under H-2A temporary work visas and live in housing that employers are required to provide. Most arrive in the spring and stay through fall, and some already are in Washington to assist with pruning fruit trees, among other tasks.

They typically live in bunkhouse or other group quarters, and travel to the fields and orchards together, putting them at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19 should they become infected with the coronavirus.

“They can’t harvest remotely,” said Lori Kelley, Senior Director of Quality at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. “What we saw with them last year: They live, eat, work, sleep and get COVID together.”

Jesús Hernández, the CEO of Family Health Centers, which often serves farmworkers in Okanogan County, said agricultural communities were not prepared for COVID-19 and waves of infection in 2020.

“We were not ready to deal with what was happening — maybe nobody was. We had people living in conditions that really exposed them to the virus and we had some deaths among farmworkers,” Hernández said. This season, there’s been more time to plan, and a new tool in game-changing vaccines.

“The sooner we get to those folks, the less need for hospitalizations and other burdens on workers as well as the health systems,” he said.

Industry officials and local health organizations lobbied Gov. Jay Inslee throughout the winter to step up the priority for front-line workers.

”These workers are so essential — for our economy and our food — that we need to protect them,” said Carlos Olivares, CEO of Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. “We have been pushing hard.”

As seasonal farmworkers arrive in waves this spring, growers are working with a network of public health officials, community health centers and state contractors to test and then vaccinate as many workers as possible.

The goal is to provide testing and protection as quickly as workers arrive, which will often require meeting workers at group housing sites or the farms, themselves.

The state health department has contracted with Medical Teams International for rapid testing.

Jason Rogers, a manager with the Oregon-based humanitarian organization, said the group usually receives about 27 hours’ notice from employers as workers cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

”We get a line list that shows when people cross and when we can expect to receive them in Central Washington,” Rogers said.

Medical Teams International offers six mobile teams to meet arriving groups of workers and provide 15-minute tests for COVID-19.

From Jan. 12 through March 5, the contractor administered 5,358 tests in Washington state. Only 16 came back positive, according to Leslie Aaron, of Medical Teams International. Rogers said the company is working to finalize a contract with the state to provide mobile vaccination services, too.

Community Health Centers, which serve the uninsured and other patients regardless of their ability to pay, will play central roles in vaccinating agricultural workers.

The federal government last month began boosting vaccine supply to community health centers, including some in Washington state.

Hernández said the Biden administration was relying on community health clinics to reach under-resourced communities, and in Washington many of these organizations have longstanding relationships with guest workers and farmworkers.

Hernández, of Family Health Centers, recently ordered 800 doses from the federal government, including some for farmworkers in Okanogan County.

The Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which had vaccinated more than 37,000 people at its clinics, pop-ups and mass vaccination sites as of last week, will also rely on federal supply for planned mobile and pop-up clinics to visit farm and warehouse workers.

Olivares said fully staffed mobile units could use federal supply to vaccinate as many as 500 to 1,200 people each day. Olivares said his team is coordinating with about 25 farms to schedule visits. They will also visit warehouses.

In Wenatchee, the Columbia Valley Community Health will send out a mobile trailer with a doctor and support staff.

“Our highest priority will be the congregant work housing but we will also probably end up doing vaccinations in packing sheds and food banks,” CEO David Olson said.

In addition, the Chelan-Douglas Health District also plans arrange for worker visits to the mass vaccination site at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, according to health administrator Luke Davies.

Davies said most growers have been eager to arrange for vaccinations.

“They want their employees to be happy, healthy and safe. They want to make sure, come harvest time, they’re not having interruptions in harvest or leaving fruit on the vine or the tree,” Davies said.

At Kershaw Companies, managers currently have about 75 employees from Mexico on the payroll holding H-2A visas, which allow foreign nationals to reside in the U.S. as temporary agricultural workers. Many of those employees appear eager to get the vaccination.

”They are probably among the most vocal. They said, ‘is this for us, too?’ “ And I said yes, absolutely,” said Abdellatif, Kershaw’s HR manager.

Some of the younger H-2A workers appeared less interested, but Abdellatif is hopeful the incentive pay will overcome any reluctance. So far, more than 140 of Kershaw’s orchard workers have signed for a vaccination clinic scheduled for March 23 at the company’s processing plant site, Abdellatif said.

The state health department will use state workers and contractors to fill any gaps in vaccine coverage for farmworkers, said Michele Roberts, its acting assistant secretary.

Washington’s seafood industry also has been working with state health officials to expedite vaccination. The biggest harvests unfold off Alaska, where remote locations and close-quarters working conditions compound COVID-19 risks.

Outbreaks on vessels working off Alaska have forced companies to pause fishing and steam to port. They also caused temporary closures at shoreside plants in Alaska, including a monthlong shutdown of Seattle-based Trident’s plant in Akutan, where more than 40% of 706 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Feb. 10 announced that vaccines would be made available to both resident and nonresident seafood workers. But a clinic at the port of Dutch Harbor has struggled to obtain enough doses to vaccinate some 8,000 workers in the Aleutian Islands area, according to Dr. Ann Jarris, of Seattle-based Discovery Health, which is assisting the seafood industry in vaccinations.

Discovery Health also operates a vaccination site at Pier 90 in Seattle, which can help seafood industry workers at they depart or return to Alaska or prepare for Northwest harvests.

In Central Washington, health leaders expect they’ll need to change some people’s minds about the vaccine, and have outreach efforts planned.

Hernández said workers often make trips into Brewster and other towns to cash wage checks and send money home, and it’s a good time to approach them with flyers and information.

Workers at Family Health Centers are well-positioned to fight against vaccine hesitancy, which has been fueled by online misinformation in many communities, including among some Hispanic workers, he said.

“We are the ones often taking care of those folks when they come to the clinics. We have a lot of employees who speak the language,” Hernández said.

Last Thursday, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic partnered with the local Catholic diocese to hold a vaccination event in Spanish. Clinicians inoculated Bishop Joseph Tyson with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He spoke to those gathered in Spanish, encouraging vaccination.

Tyson told The Seattle Times: “My message is very simple — it’s not a sin to take the vaccine.”

Washington projected to see $3 billion revenue boost

OLYMPIA — After a year of economic uncertainty and possible budget deficits, it looks like Washington’s revenue is right back to where it was a year ago.

In a forecast released Wednesday, the state’s projected revenue for the current budget cycle ending in June is up $1.3 billion while the projected revenue for the next two years is up by $1.9 billion, according to the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. That’s when compared to the previous forecast in November.

“We do expect stronger economic growth,” the council’s executive director Stephen Lerch said Wednesday, citing the federal stimulus package and increased vaccine distribution. “Still, clearly there’s some uncertainty associated with that.”

The substantial increase in projected revenue puts the state almost back to where it was last February, before the pandemic hit and talks of a possible $8.8 billion budget shortfall began.

State lawmakers will use the new forecast to write the state budget for the next two years. The revenue boost comes as the state is receiving billions of dollars in federal support from the recently signed stimulus package.

Since the last forecast in November, general fund collections, real estate estate tax collections and Revenue Act tax collections — retail sales, business and occupation, public utility and non-cigarette tobacco products — all saw improvements. Despite dropping in the beginning of the pandemic, the Revenue Act collections exceeded its previous peak in January 2020.

While the increase in revenue is a good sign, lawmakers are still cautious about the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus. House Appropriations Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said lawmakers should be “quite concerned for the ongoing stability for our revenue system.”

Senate and House budget teams will release their proposals next week — slightly later than normal as budget writers try to learn how the federal stimulus money can be spent. Much of the federal package will have strict guidelines and likely used for one-time, COVID-19 costs, such as rental and business assistance or vaccine distribution.

“The flexibility we have is minimal,” Orsmby said.

Under the terms of the bill, the funds can be used to respond to the pandemic “or its negative economic impacts,” to pay essential workers, to offset lost revenue to pay for government services, or “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”

However, state lawmakers did hint that they could use federal funds to improve the state’s transportation budget, but it is unclear to what extent they will do that.

Many questions surrounding the federal money won’t be answered by the time budget proposals are released next week, said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

State Republicans have criticized Democrats for introducing a new capital gains tax this session when the state has enough revenue and federal money coming in to balance the budget.

Ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said Wednesday that if the state can’t live within its means, “we have a spending problem.”

State Democrats, on the other hand, have said now is the time to invest in long-term programs. Ormsby said the economic growth displayed Wednesday was not felt by everyone. It’s largely being realized by people who already have the means, he added. The state’s budget should reflect that.

Rolfes said Wednesday’s outlook, as well as the federal money, puts the state in a strong position for recovery, but it needs to be strategic. The forecast shows that the pandemic “didn’t clobber” the state, Rolfes said, but that doesn’t mean the state should go on a spending spree.

”I’m just offering some caution to folks,” she said. “I’m urging a steady course.”

Washington’s revenue boost is in line with what many other states are seeing. Despite concerns with pandemic losses, a report from Urban Institute’s State and Local Finance Initiative showed that while there was wide variation among states, total state revenues nationwide declined by only 1.8% from April to December 2020, compared to that same period in 2019.

Twenty-two states, including Washington, saw revenue increases while 28 saw decreases. Washington’s state tax revenues collected in the last three quarters of 2020 were 2.5% higher than during that same period in 2019, according to the report.

States that rely heavily on economic sectors hit hard by the pandemic saw the sharpest drops in revenue during that period. In Alaska, where the economy depends largely on oil production, revenue fell by more than 42% after oil prices plunged early in the pandemic. Tourism-heavy Hawaii and Nevada saw year-over-year revenue decreases of 17% and nearly 13%, respectively.

Lucy Dadayan, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said economists projected steep declines in revenue in mid-2020 partly to avoid repeating mistakes from the 2007-2008 financial crisis and partly because there was no recent precedent for such a disruptive event.

”We didn’t have a global pandemic for nearly a century, and so it was really hard to forecast revenues with any accuracy,” she said. “Fast forward eight or 10 months into the pandemic, we see that the revenue performance is much better overall compared to what the initial forecasts were.”

The states that have fared relatively well, Dadayan said, have revenue models that rely more on taxing workers and businesses that have weathered the pandemic better than most.

While Washington’s lack of state income tax could be a weakness, the state had substantially fewer per-capita cases of COVID-19 than other sales-tax-free states like Texas and Florida. Solid growth in insurance premiums, business taxes and the real estate market also buoyed Washington’s revenue.

Still, Dadayan said, Washington’s revenue grew by less than it would have were it not for the pandemic. She also warned that Boeing’s plans to cut some 30,000 jobs this year leaves a big question mark on the state’s revenue outlook.

Despite not having revenue shortfalls for 2020, Washington received $7.1 billion as part of $350 billion in aid to state, local and tribal governments in the sweeping stimulus package.

Critics say the spending is out of step with reality, especially in states like Washington where revenues actually increased. At the same time, a provision in the bill prohibits states from using the funds to offset tax cuts, angering Republicans.

GOP attorneys general from 21 states, including Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday raising concerns about the legality of the provision. Crapo sent Yellen a similar letter on the same day.

The Treasury Department responded Wednesday, saying states may cut taxes so long as they use their own funds — not the federal aid — to offset the lost revenue.

Apple Blossom Festival 2021: A new normal

WENATCHEE — It’s now official that the Apple Blossom Festival is coming back — but what’s a festival during the pandemic going to be like?

In some ways, it will be largely the same, says Festival Administrator Darci Christoferson.

Parsons Photography 

Darci Christoferson

Apple Blossom administrator

Christoferson said she is working on a map of Memorial Park, where the food vendors, arts and crafts vendors and entertainment will be located. There will be fencing around the perimeter of the park with an entrance and exit, which is very different from past years.

The beer garden will be limited to 50% capacity. The grand parade will look much different. There will be no judging.

“It will be more of a North Central Washington parade celebration honoring last year’s royalty of any community that wants to come,” Christoferson said.

“We know there are certain guidelines with bands and schools. We’ll take a drumline. We’re just really excited for anyone who wants to be in the parade. We’ve invited daycares, elementary schools, preschools. Whoever wants to be in it, that’s who we want.”

There will be no youth parade, but nothing really has been canceled, she said, although some things have been modified. Instead of a big tent of art on youth day, it’s all virtual this year on the website and Facebook.

The festival, which normally takes place in late April and early May, is being held June 3-13 this year, dates chosen after conversations with health officials.

Christoferson said in their discussions with Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Luke Davies about the 2021 event, the May dates would have been acceptable.

However, she said, “When we were talking about vaccinations and different phases, it was way more optimistic in June than it is in May. We just felt it would an awesome celebration to have it during graduation and the last week of school.”

The plan is to continue to work with the health district on the park plan, the beer garden plan, the parade plan, she said.

The festival planning is continuing as long as Chelan County stays in Phase 3. Going to Phase 4 would be fine, Christopher said, because all the safety measures would still be in place. A move back to Phase 2 would cancel the festival.

“But if we see that cases are rising, and we have a much more significant vaccine hesitancy than we are seeing, then most likely we will probably cancel,” Davies said. “The last thing we want to do is have a super-spreader event at the wrong time.”

Christoferson said people need to continue to be safe and mask up, so we can have the festival and other community events.

“What is great about us taking this week is people are rethinking graduation and people are rethinking the Classy Chassis Parade and rethinking runs and marathons. We’re hoping by us taking this leap that others will also start a new normal and start a new beginning,” she said.

Right now, she is contacting food vendors, arts and craft vendors and entertainers to make sure the new dates work for them. The majority of the food vendors have not worked for a year, she said.

“They are super excited to come to our festival in June. We’re one of their first appearances in a year,” she said. “It’s the same for our arts and crafts vendors. They’ve done some markets, but they haven’t really done a fair. They are very excited too. Really it’s just reconnecting with all these people that had committed to 2020 and making sure they want to be a part of 2021.”

It’s been tough getting everything lined up for the June dates, but Christoferson said it’s been “crazy and awesome.” She said the community is so supportive of Apple Blossom and so excited about doing something.

“I sent an email to Apple Valley Pumping, who does our Port-a-Potties. I said, FYI, we’re going to have a festival June 3-13, can you help us out? She emailed, ‘I’m so excited, I can’t wait,”’ Christoferson said. “I emailed back, I said, ‘I never thought confirming Port-a-Potties would make me cry.’ I’m so excited to do this.”