All Gebbers Farms workers being tested for virus
All agricultural workers for Gebbers Farms — some 4,500 individuals — are being tested for COVID by Washington state. In addition, employees at all other growers with at least nine COVID cases — or more than 10% of their workers infected — must be tested, Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in an order on Aug. 19.
The mandatory tests were ordered after state public health officials became alarmed by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the food and agriculture industry.
All Gebbers workers and others who meet the threshold must be tested at least once between Aug. 19 and Sept. 2, Wiesman said. All new or returning Gebbers workers must also be tested or quarantined before they can report to work. Tests will be paid for by the state.
The comprehensive testing at Gebbers Farms comes after three employees died, more than 120 tested positive, and another 150 had COVID symptoms in July, Wiesman said.
“We’re monitoring in Okanogan County a very concerning situation … in the agricultural industry,” Wiesman said at a news briefing on Aug. 19.
Free COVID testing
Okanogan County Public Health is continuing free community testing. Confirmed dates and locations are:
• Wednesday (Aug. 26), Tonasket, location TBD, 2 to 7 p.m.
• Thursday (Aug. 27), Brewster High School, 2 to 7 p.m.
Check https://okanogancountycovid19.org for more dates and other information about COVID.
The testing order and related protections grew out of visits by Wiesman and Gov. Jay Inslee to Brewster and to Chelan and Douglas counties in the past two weeks, where they talked with elected officials, agricultural workers and their advocates, and health care providers to understand the situation and how to address it, Wiesman said at the briefing.
Farmworkers and their advocates explained that many workers avoided testing because they feared losing wages if they were sick or quarantined, Wiesman said. Starting two weeks ago, the state guaranteed up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to agricultural workers through mid-November.
“Gebbers Farms has always supported testing, and our family welcomes our state’s health department to the Okanogan Valley, where we have lived and farmed for more than 130 years,” Gebbers CEO Cass Gebbers said in a statement on the company’s website.
“This pandemic is about COVID, not Gebbers, or ag labor, or politics. Every employer in Washington state is facing an unprecedented workplace health crisis, compounded by an employee’s understandable desire to maintain ordinary activities and personal relationships on their own time,” Gebbers said.
About half of Gebbers’ current workforce are guest workers, according to the company. Since March, fewer than 3% of guest workers reported to the company that they had tested positive, according to a company fact sheet from Aug. 11.
Gebbers has orchards in Okanogan and Chelan counties. The family-owned company is the largest cherry producer in the world, according to the company.
In addition to the testing order, the state issued regulations for employer-provided isolation facilities to ensure that workers get prompt medical attention, including access to life support. Employees must be checked twice a day by licensed health professionals to monitor symptoms, Wiesman said.
Other workplace requirements cover physical distancing, disinfection of vehicles for worker transport, and hand-washing stations. Employees must also be informed about paid leave and workers’ compensation.
Inslee’s proclamation covers workers in orchards, fields, dairies, and fruit- and vegetable-packing warehouses, as well as employer-provided transportation and housing. The requirements don’t apply to meat- or other food-processing operations.
Employers will be held accountable if they don’t attend to the health needs of their workers, Inslee said.
An investigation of two housing camps operated by Gebbers Farms launched in July by the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is ongoing.
The rate of new COVID infections in Okanogan County has continued to drop, with just 35 cases confirmed in the week ending Aug. 24, versus 52 in the previous week. The cumulative total since the start of the pandemic is 970. There have been 11 cases in the Methow Valley, with no new infections this week, according to Okanogan County Public Health.
Public Health recently conducted nine days of free community testing in the county, drawing more than 1,200 people. At least three more days of free testing are scheduled this month. Results from the community testing were not available by press time.
Despite the improvements across the state, “we have to be honest with ourselves to realize we are so far away from success on this, that we have to remain incredibly diligent,” Inslee said. The target for new infections over a two-week period is 25 per 100,000 population, but the current rate for Washington is more than four times that goal, he said.
In Okanogan County, the per capita rate is even higher, although it dropped to 225 as of Aug. 24, from 344 in the previous two weeks, according to Public Health.
Disease rates in south-central Washington — in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties, where cases skyrocketed in June — have been declining. Data analysis indicates that the reduction in cases in Yakima County is due to an ambitious campaign to get people to wear masks, Inslee said.
State health officials are reviewing guidelines for businesses and activities in each re-opening phase across the state, to be sure they are appropriate to rates of COVID infections, Wiesman said. With basic prevention methods, such as facial coverings and physical distancing, it’s possible some activities may be allowed in earlier phases, he said.
Inslee urged everyone to keep doing their part. We bent the curve down once before, but the virus came back. It’s still too soon to return to life before the pandemic, because COVID would rebound with a vengeance, he said.