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Virus outbreak targeted in agricultural Yakima County

State implementing safety recommendations to battle a large outbreak of coronavirus in agricultural county

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FILE - In this April 10, 2020 file photo, Missael Lopez, left, and Laura McIlrath Riel bundle asparagus at McIlrath Family Farm stand in Yakima, Wash., during the coronavirus outbreak.
FILE - In this April 10, 2020 file photo, Missael Lopez, left, and Laura McIlrath Riel bundle asparagus at McIlrath Family Farm stand in Yakima, Wash., during the coronavirus outbreak. The state of Washington is implementing safety recommendations to battle a large outbreak of the coronavirus in the agricultural area in the central part of the state (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP, File) Photo Gallery

SPOKANE — The state of Washington is implementing safety recommendations to battle a large outbreak of the coronavirus in an agricultural county in the central part of the state, officials said Tuesday.

Yakima County, a major food producer, has recorded about 3,000 cases of the virus among its 250,000 residents, and infections have moved into the county’s massive farm and food processing sector. The outbreak has caused one case for every 89 people in the county.

“That’s really where we are seeing our hot spot at the moment,” said John Wiesman, state secretary of health.

By contrast, King County, which includes Seattle, has one case for every 274 residents.

Many of the cases in Yakima County are showing up on farms, in meat plants and in fruit and vegetable processing warehouses, officials said.

State and federal disease experts descended on the county in the past two weeks to look for ways to stem the burgeoning number of cases, which comes as other parts of Washington are reporting shrinking numbers.

The experts recommended a series of steps that employers can adopt immediately, while the state worked to make the reforms mandatory, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.

The recommendations included that workers be at least 6 feet apart, not working shoulder-to-shoulder, Lindquist said. All employees should wear face masks, he added.

Plastic dividers should be installed between work stations, employers should introduce staggered shifts and employees should not all eat together in the plant cafeteria, Lindquist said.

Employers should also offer sick leave to discourage ill people from coming to work, and all employees should have their temperature taken and be screened for symptoms when they report to work.

“The strike teams have been going out to farms and factories to implement these,” Lindquist said.

The office of Gov. Jay Inslee was in the final stages of amending the governor’s emergency proclamation to include the guidelines, said David Postman, the governor’s chief of staff. That new order could be finished this week.

Yakima County is one of the nation’s greatest food producers, growing a wide variety of crops, including apples, cherries, wine grapes and most of the nation’s hops to flavor beer.

Workers at numerous warehouses have been conducting wildcat strikes in recent weeks, demanding safer working conditions and hazard pay.

The governor’s office earlier issued orders regulating the management of group housing that farmers provide for migrant workers. Advocates have criticized those orders for, among other things, allowing up to 15 people to sleep in dormitory rooms.

Lindquist said the current guidelines for agriculture laborers are specific to Yakima County, while the new orders will cover the entire state.

Eight experts from the Washington state Department of Health and two from the federal Centers for Disease Control have been working in Yakima County for two weeks to try and limit the outbreak there, Lindquist said.

The outbreak appeared to start at multiple long-term care facilities in the county before moving into the agricultural work force, officials said.

“Our priority, our focus, is to make sure we are able to prevent the spread of infection in places where people are in close quarters,” Lindquist said. “We realized that there was a need for additional support to do that successfully, which is why we requested extra support from the CDC.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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