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Wenatchee WinCo Foods opens

WENATCHEE — WinCo Foods opened its Wenatchee store to hundreds of shoppers Monday.

“I have been so excited for this,” said shopper Stephanie Critchell. “I waited to do a big grocery haul.”

Critchell brought seven bags to pack her groceries — WinCo asks customers to bag their own purchases — and said she’s been holding off on buying groceries in anticipation of the store opening.

The store at 1340 N. Wenatchee Ave. opened at 8:30 a.m. and its parking lot was roughly three-quarters full by 9:30. The Wenatchee franchise is the company’s 130th location in 10 states and is located in the former Shopko building.

The store opened under COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s about the same as operating under normal business conditions,” said Tony Singleton, district manager of WinCo’s intermountain division.

“We follow all CDC guidelines, we’re at the 25% capacity per Washington state mandates. So yeah, we just make sure we’re just implementing our mask policies, our social distance policies and other that it’s just like normal business.”

He added that masks are offered to those who don’t have any and announcements and posters remind customers to abide by coronavirus guidelines.

“Our motto is low-price leader every day,” Singleton said. “We make sure that we get good cost of goods and we pass that savings on to our customers. You’ll see some of the lowest prices you’ve ever seen in a grocery store.”

Shopko closed in 2019 after filing for bankruptcy. WinCo set its sights on the 84,000-square-foot building a few months later and ultimately spent roughly $6 million on construction and remodel, according to city building permits. WinCo is leasing the Wenatchee property from Kellogg Shopco Properties.

The store will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and staffed by 150 to 180 full- and part-time employees. Nationwide, WinCo has 19,000 “employee-owners”: a percentage of employee pay each year is deposited into their retirement account, Singleton said.

Outside the store walls, the parking lot was repaved and painted. Left-turn signals were added to the intersection of Maple Street and North Wenatchee Avenue — something the city of Wenatchee has planned for a few years to accommodate increased traffic in the area from a new tenant in the former ShopKo building and the addition of a post office, according to city planning documents.

Singleton noted that WinCo had previously considered Wenatchee as a potential home for one of its stores.

“We have a whole department that looks at different sites and areas: what’s a good fit for WinCo and what’s a good for the community?” Singleton said. “Wenatchee was a great fit for us.”

Wildfire smoke may carry 'mind-bending' amounts of fungi and bacteria, scientists say

LOS ANGELES — When wildfires roar through a forest and bulldozers dig into the earth to stop advancing flames, they may be churning more into the air than just clouds of dust and smoke, scientists say.

Those dark, billowing plumes of smoke that rise on waves of heat during the day and sink into valleys as the night air cools may be transporting countless living microbes that can seep into our lungs or cling to our skin and clothing, according to research published recently in Science. In some cases, researchers fear that airborne pathogens could sicken firefighters or downwind residents.

“We were inspired to write this because we recognize that there are many trillions of microbes in smoke that haven’t really been incorporated in an understanding ... of human health,” said Leda Kobziar, the University of Idaho’s wildland fire science director. “At this point, it’s really unknown. The diversity of microbes that we’ve found are really mind-bending.”

As this recent fire seasons suggests, the need to understand what’s in the wildfire smoke we can’t help but breathe and how it may affect us has never been more pronounced, but scientists say we are seriously behind the curve.

Wildfires burned across more than 10.2 million acres of the United States in 2020, federal statistics show, including more than 700,000 acres in Washington state and some 4.2 million acres in California, where a greater number of residents were exposed to smoke for a longer period of time than ever before.

Wildfire smoke now accounts for up to half of all fine-particle pollution in the Western U.S., according to researchers. Although there are many studies on the long-term impacts to human health from urban air pollution and short-term impacts from wildfire smoke, there’s little known about the multitude of ways the latter can hurt us over a lifetime.

“Frankly, we don’t really know about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because community exposures haven’t been long-term before,” said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board.

But humans — and Californians in particular — should expect to inhale more wildfire smoke in the future.

Scientists say the planet will continue warming for decades to come, even if humans suddenly collectively act to stop climate change. This warming, and other factors, are contributing to ever more destructive wildfires. The state’s forests, meanwhile, are struggling to adapt and native plants are being displaced by faster-burning invasive species.

Add to those trends a global pandemic that attacks the respiratory system, and microbe-filled fire smoke every year could be considered a growing health risk, researchers say. They wonder whether microbes in wildfire smoke could make cancer patients more vulnerable to infections or make children with asthma more prone to developing pneumonia.

Scientists believe some microbes survive and even proliferate in wildfire, where heat scorches the ground and leaves behind a layer of carbon that shields microbes within the earth from intense heat. Others survive in the air because wildfire particulates can absorb the sun’s otherwise lethal ultraviolet radiation, the scientists said. And still other spores are likely spread on wind currents caused by fire.

Kobziar and study co-author George Thompson III, an associate professor of medicine at UC Davis, said that up until now, the connection between microbes and wildfires has been anecdotal — such as the tendency for wildland firefighters to get sick with Valley fever after working on an incident. The illness is contracted by inhaling spores of the fungi genus Coccidioides.

“We have more questions than answers at this point,” Thompson said. “Our lungs are exposed to pathogens every day we don’t think much of. But [what] if we increase the number of microbes in there with fire?”

In 2018, for example, the Kern County Fire Department sought a $100,000 grant to get assistance in cutting fuel breaks — which disturb the soil — because their firefighters would get sick after doing the work. Data show that Valley fever cases spike on the county’s valley floor every fall, just as fire season is underway in the surrounding hills.

“Aerosolized, microbes, spores, or fungal conidia … have the potential to travel hundreds of miles, depending on fire behavior and atmospheric conditions, and are eventually deposited or inhaled downwind of a fire,” Kobziar and Thompson wrote in their paper.

Yet, determining what pathogens exist in wildfire smoke has been difficult.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and team of chemists, physicists, biologists and forest and fire ecologists from a number of universities have been collaborating for years to study wildfire smoke around the country, under the assumption that nobody will be immune to its effects in the future.

“As the climate changes, as the temperature warms up, as we build houses in places that are surrounded by human populations and housing development expand into regions susceptible to fires, it’s a matter of time,” said Berry Lefero, manager of NASA’s Tropospheric Composition Program, which includes a DC-8 jetliner that circles the globe studying wildfire smoke, ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere’s lower layer.

Through the combined work of these researchers, scientists hope, the public and healthcare workers will one day be able to receive timely, accurate forecasts on where wildfire smoke will go, what specific health hazards it poses, and what people in its path should do to prepare beyond the boilerplate advice to stay indoors.

To solve the riddle of what microbes are in the smoke and why, Kobziar and Thompson need to understand what type of fuel is burning, like a grass, shrub, or tree; how much of it there was initially; how severely it was burned (was it just scorched black or completely reduced to ash or something in between?); and where the smoke originated.

Once those variables are determined, there’s the complicated task of actually capturing the smoke, which is by no means uniform, Kobziar said.

In September, Kobziar, a former firefighter, used a drone to capture samples of the air over Idaho when it was inundated with smoke from fires in Eastern Washington and Oregon. She then placed the samples in a petri dish, added some food that microbes like to eat and waited to see what would happen.

“Even a couple hundred miles away from the source of the smoke, it was still significant,” Kobziar said. “We’re still trying to isolate all the things we found.”

Tim Edwards, president of the firefighters union Local 2881, which represents thousands in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, hope the scientists’ work can boost his own efforts to get wildland firefighters respirators, since they typically just rely on face masks or bandanas — unlike their urban firefighting counterparts.

It’s not only the dust kicked up in a fire that gets crews sick, Edwards said.

“Now, in a wildland conflagration, you have 1,000 homes burning,” he said. “You burn the house, you don’t know what chemicals they have in that house, all that is on fire and that’s going in your lungs.”

Biden administration ‘worried’ by limited racial data on vaccine distribution

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Biden administration officials are expressing frustration over inadequate data on how many Black and Hispanic Americans have received COVID-19 vaccines, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that it lacked race and ethnicity information on nearly half of those vaccinated in the first month.

The Biden administration has pledged to increase attention and resources on the equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines among minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic — a difficult task without the data to guide them on who is getting vaccinated where, White House officials said.

The few data points available, they say, are of concern. The new CDC study showed that only 5.4 percent of Americans who received vaccines during the first month available were Black. African Americans make up roughly 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Overall, the report found that 39.6 percent of individuals vaccinated represented racial and ethnic minorities, including 11.5 percent identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

But the CDC and President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team said the available data does not cover all those who have received the vaccine.

“Interpretation of data from the analysis of COVID-19 vaccination initiation is limited by the high percentage of records with unknown or missing race/ethnicity information,” the CDC report concludes. “Race/ethnicity was unknown for approximately one half of the population who initiated vaccination during the first month of the COVID-19 vaccination program in the United States.”

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity task force, said that as of Jan. 30 the federal government is missing race and ethnicity data on 47 percent of Americans who have received vaccinations.

“We cannot ensure an equitable vaccination program without data to guide us,” she said to reporters. “I’m worried about how behind we are. We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority.”

Nunez-Smith said the health equity task force would be offering recommendations on how to improve the information that is being collected and that federal health officials were meeting with state and local governments about their equity plans.

“These challenges reflect longstanding and deeply rooted systemic challenges. We’re not suggesting these problems are easily solved,” Nunez-Smith said.

States should make a greater effort to report race and ethnicity data, said Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team, which would help the government get the vaccine to those at greatest risk of hospitalization and death.

The Trump administration had said it would follow distribution guidelines recommended by an independent ethics advisory panel for ensuring equitable allocation of the new vaccines.

That administration largely deferred to state and local governments to handle distribution within their own jurisdictions, which administration officials say led to an inconsistent patchwork that has made it difficult for the federal government to keep track of everyone receiving the vaccine.

“Governors are obviously overseeing the distribution and efforts to ensure that the vaccine is getting into communities across the country – we are closely engaged with them and looking for ways to help assist on that front,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

“We’re also working with CDC to identify and explore ways to urgently improve the quality of vaccination data reporting by race and ethnicity. There’s no question, it’s not the level we need it to be at,” she said.

Last week, signing an executive order related to equitable access to vaccines, Biden said that the devastation wrought by the pandemic on Black communities across the country was “nothing short of stunning.”

“Access. We have to change,” Biden said. “We have moved in a direction for those communities that are hard to get to.”

Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care and infectious disease physician at the University of Virginia who is on UVA’s vaccine distribution committee, said that the Biden administration is “coming out of the gate handicapped” without complete and accurate data on who is getting vaccinated.

“We know that the data should be collected. It’s something that CDC has wanted to do, they put out several press releases and reports before outlining the problem, but it’s time to actually just fix it,” he said of demographic information on COVID-19.

Hesitancy to get the vaccine may be partially responsible for lower rates of vaccination in communities of color, but civil rights leaders and experts say access to the vaccine is a predominant issue.

“If you’re on the fence, and it’s going to take you three hours of dedicated time to try to sign up, then you’re going to find yourself on the other side of the fence not getting the vaccine just because it’s not personally convenient for you,” Bell said. “So it needs to be much easier to sign up.”

Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said that while there is “trepidation” about taking a vaccine, the government also needs to improve its outreach to Black communities.

Her organization has commissioned its own study on the barriers to access, she said.

Campbell said that racial minorities should be prioritized for vaccination, given that they are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate, and the vaccine must be made easier to obtain in their communities.

“You don’t want it to be difficult for somebody to have to go across town in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

Esther Naranjo, Wenatchee resident, talks to a World reporter about her vaccination experience. Naranjo's granddaughter, Gregoria Cordero, signed Naranjo up for an appointment on Saturday.  

Ag groups plan to sue state over farmworker rules

YAKIMA — Two grower organizations say they will file a lawsuit Tuesday in Yakima County Superior Court against the state Department of Labor & Industries and the state Department of Health over recently revised emergency farmworker rules.

Officials from the Washington Farm Bureau and Wafla said the emergency rules merely roll over policies established at the start of the pandemic last spring and disregard industry feedback, improved understanding of COVID-19 transmission, and best safety practices.

In January, Gov. Jay Inslee rejected the two groups’ appeal to repeal and revise the rules. In a letter to an attorney representing the two groups, Inslee maintained that L&I and the Department of Health did not err in releasing the revised rules.

John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau, said his organization and other agriculture and commodity groups sent numerous comments to Inslee and are frustrated by the state’s lack of willingness to take that feedback into account.

“We are not getting offered the conversation that has been happening for other industry sectors,” he said.

The groups feel a sense of urgency as about 500-1,000 workers a week will begin arriving in the next several months to help with pre-harvest tasks, said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla.

Altogether, the state expects to bring in more than 25,000 H-2A workers this year.

Under the emergency rules, which are in effect through May, growers are subject to several restrictions, including limiting the capacity of farmworker housing to 50% and prohibiting the use of bunk beds unless employers maintain cohort groups that work, travel and live together.

Officials say other rules are also unrealistic for agricultural employers in rural areas. They include a requirement for twice-daily medical visits to farmworkers with COVID-19 symptoms or providing 20-minute access to emergency medical services and one-hour access to an emergency room with a ventilator.

“We’re talking up to an hour or more for many of growers to get to town or a town that has a medical facility,” Stuhlmiller said.

The two groups are asking the court to declare the emergency rules invalid and prevent the two state agencies from enforcing them.

Fazio said he wants new rules that reflect the use of vaccines and other measures.

The two groups, along with others in the agricultural industry, have advocated for a test-and-vaccinate method. Under that approach, H-2A workers would be tested upon arrival in the U.S. There would also be an effort to get agricultural workers vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Agricultural workers over 50 are among the priority groups for the vaccine, but it’s unclear when those workers can be vaccinated.

Fazio maintains that once workers are vaccinated and separated into cohorts, restrictions should be lifted over time.

“There’s no off-ramp,” he said. “What we need is the off-ramp.”