NCW — Two thirds of Stemilt agricultural workers in an East Wenatchee housing unit have now tested positive for COVID-19, an increase from earlier reports showing about half the workers tested positive.
Stemilt found in April that 36 out of 71 of its agricultural workers living in the housing unit tested positive for COVID-19. The company retested the employees whose results came back negative and nine of those individuals now test positive, according to court documents.
In addition, six Stemilt workers showed symptoms of COVID-19 and tested positive in early April in the same East Wenatchee housing unit, before the 71 other workers were tested
It means that at least 51 out of 77 H2A workers living in a housing unit together in East Wenatchee became infected by COVID-19. Other camps in the area have not shown any sign of infection, but the close quarters that these workers live in present a possibility for rapid infection, Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Barry Kling said.
Stemilt Spokesperson Roger Pepperl had said the company conducted the testing of the 71 agricultural workers as a proactive step. He did not mention the six previous symptomatic cases.
The court documents come from a lawsuit filed April 27 by agricultural worker unions against the state Department of Labor and Industries and the state Department of Health. The unions want greater protections for agricultural workers against COVID-19. Columbia Legal Services is representing the agricultural workers.
The number of asymptomatic cases among the agricultural workers is still alarming, Kling said, and the fact that it moves silently through populations is what’s driving the pandemic, he added. But it is true that there were symptomatic cases that led to the testing of the Stemilt housing unit.
After the Stemilt results were returned, the health district helped coordinate two more wide-scale tests in agriculture housing. Columbia Valley Community Health tested 36 residents of an agriculture housing facility in Cashmere — all came back negative, Kling said.
Confluence Health sent a team to Grant County to test roughly 80 workers who had just arrived from Mexico under H2A work visas. All of those results were also negative, Kling said.
“The whole point was, especially after that first example, to determine whether that was an outlier or a more typical case,” he said.
Agricultural workers are more at risk than some populations from COVID-19, because of their close quarter living situations, similar to nursing homes, Kling said. The health district does not have plans to test more agricultural worker camps at this time.
In court documents, Stemilt Growers describes the process around how they identified their agricultural workers were infected with COVID-19.
In early March, Stemilt instituted crew isolation, which meant workers were assigned to crews and had to keep apart from other crews, including at their living arrangements, according to court documents. The crew members live in housing units that consist of bunk beds.
On March 12, a Stemilt local-seasonal worker in Mattawa started coughing, according to court documents. The company tested the patient and the person came back positive for COVID-19. Stemilt isolated the worker along with his five crew members.
Then on April 13, three H2A workers living in a 104-person housing unit in East Wenatchee exhibited coughing, according to court documents. The housing unit was only holding 63 people at that time. They were sent for testing and before the tests came back, three more employees exhibited coughing and were tested. All six tests came back positive for COVID-19 in early April.
The six employees were immediately isolated on April 13 in an empty housing unit, according to court documents. Their roommates were then identified and also quarantined in a separate housing unit.
Dr. Peter Rutherford, Confluence Health CEO, then contacted Stemilt and talked to West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, about testing everyone at the facility in East Wenatchee. Mathison agreed and 71 employees were tested.
All 71 employees did not have a fever and only four had a slight cough at the time of the testing, according to court documents. Of the 71 tests, 38 came back positive and all of the positives were workers.
Stemilt could find no pattern for the people who got infected, according to court documents. It didn’t seem to matter how many people were sleeping in each room, whether it was two or four. Some workers tested negative, even though they were sleeping in a room with a person who was positive. Some people tested positive, even though they were sleeping alone.
Rutherford then recommended retesting the employees who were negative, according to court documents. Nine of those who had tested negative came back as positive.
Stemilt isolated all those who tested positive and quarantined those that tested negative in separate housing units, according to court documents. The company is also shopping for the employees and delivering groceries free of charge.
Stemilt conducts safety meetings daily with its employees, according to court documents. Employees also get asked daily questions about their temperature and possible symptoms they may be experiencing.
The company provides cleaning products to its employees in the housing units and instructs them to clean twice a day, according to court documents. They also clean the vans daily that transport 14 people at a time.
The people in the vans are all crew members and wear masks during transportation, according to court documents.
In the orchards each worker is assigned one row and prohibited from working across from each other, according to court documents. Each crew member is also assigned a hand-washing station with soap.
Staff reporter Reilly Kneedler contributed to this report.