A food processing company in Vancouver’s Fruit Valley neighborhood has become the center of one of the Portland metro area’s largest cluster of COVID-19 cases to date.
As of 6 p.m. Friday, 38 employees at Firestone Pacific Foods have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to Marissa Armstrong of Clark County Public Health. She said testing of employees is ongoing and that those numbers are likely to increase.
CEO Josh Hinerfeld said the company had its first confirmed case midday Sunday and learned of two more later that afternoon, according to an interview reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Firestone employs 150 people altogether, according to Hinerfeld.
The Vancouver plant shut down Monday, according to Hinerfeld.
Armstrong told The Columbian that more Firestone Pacific Food employees had tested positive during the week as they sought treatment for symptoms from medical providers. As of 9 a.m. Friday, 12 employees had tested positive, 10 of them from Clark County, she said.
That number grew rapidly on Friday as a result of joint rapid testing of all employees in partnership with Firestone Pacific Foods, the Vancouver Clinic and Clark County Public Health. That testing had turned up an additional 26 positive cases as of 6 p.m., according to Armstrong. At that time, she said, tests were still being conducted.
“Our staff will be doing interviews with everyone who tested positive,” Armstrong said. “They have already been instructed on isolating.”
She said health workers will continue to follow up over the weekend, though results from additional tests will probably not be reported until Tuesday.
Details were not available on how many of those who tested positive were showing symptoms of the disease, or how many, if any, had been hospitalized. She said 10 of the cases were included in the county’s tally of cases, but she added that it’s not yet clear how many of the additional cases would be reported in Clark County or in another jurisdiction.
The cluster of COVID-19 cases may be the Portland area’s biggest workplace outbreak reported thus far, excluding the health care sector, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported Friday.
Food processing facilities have emerged as a major source of infection across the country. There have been workplace outbreaks in Astoria and Albany in Oregon, in eastern Washington near the Tri-Cities and at plants near Boise and in Weiser, Idaho.
Firestone processes frozen fruit including raspberries, mangos, cherries and blueberries, among others. Hinerfeld said the company took steps to protect employees before the outbreak, including social distancing, temperature checks, providing masks to employees and offering expanded sick leave.
As businesses in Oregon and Washington reopen amid a gradual loosening of coronavirus restrictions, Hinerfeld said his company’s experience should serve as a cautionary tale. He said he is working with government health and labor authorities to engineer additional safeguards.
“We thought we had a pretty good plan in place and boy, it bit us in the rear end,” he said. “This genie is not back in the bottle.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.