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Dec. 10, 2023

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Firestone Pacific Foods admits safety lacking

22 more COVID-19 cases connected to outbreak at Fruit Valley food processor

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
A worker at Firestone Pacific Foods along Fruit Valley Road wears a mask while on the job. The company hopes to restart some of its production in the near future, but it will need approval from Public Health and the state Department of Labor &amp; Industries before restarting.
A worker at Firestone Pacific Foods along Fruit Valley Road wears a mask while on the job. The company hopes to restart some of its production in the near future, but it will need approval from Public Health and the state Department of Labor & Industries before restarting. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As 22 more COVID-19 cases were connected to the outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods on Wednesday, Clark County Public Health and Firestone CEO Josh Hinerfeld confirmed that certain safety measures in the facility were not stringent enough.

Public Health’s investigation of the outbreak discovered multiple areas in need of improvement with regard to infection control.

Problems in those areas included not maintaining physical distancing on the production line or during breaks, and sharing clock-in and clock-out paperwork, according to an email from Public Health Public Information Officer Marissa Armstrong.

Hinerfeld said Firestone, in many instances, tried its best to be protect workers from COVID-19 but still fell short.

Hinerfeld said he started seeking information on how to protect workers more than two months ago. In early March, the company discussed physical distancing with employees, implemented hygiene practices and revised its sick leave policy. It also provided masks to employees.

Clark County COVID-19 Update

The county added 23 new coronavirus cases Wednesday — only one new case not connected to Firestone Pacific Foods. The county now has 533 confirmed cases. Since Tuesday, five more employees and 17 close contacts have tested positive. In total, 74 Firestone workers, four of whom are not Clark County residents, and 32 close contacts have been confirmed to have COVID-19.

The company began daily temperature screenings around the end of March, and Hinerfeld reached out to Public Health for further guidance.

Still, the company encountered challenges with physical distancing. Employees did not always follow proper physical distancing measures or wear masks while on breaks.

“We could have done better,” Hinerfeld said. “We learned we didn’t do enough. I hope from this experience that others will learn from it.”

Hinerfeld said the company is working to improve safety measures for employees, as Firestone eyes a return to some parts of its production that ceased earlier this week. Firestone has placed markings in break rooms to show proper physical distancing, removed furniture from break rooms, increased available hand sanitizer, placed dividers along its production line to help keep people more separated and put in place plans to sanitize fork lifts between use.

Public Health and the state Department of Labor & Industries are working with Firestone to create an adequate safety plan before it resumes some of its production.

Hinerfeld said a large number of asymptomatic cases tied to the outbreak made their daily temperature checks less effective. He said none of the workers who are currently sick ever had a temperature above 100 degrees.

“I think this is why we weren’t catching this during our screening process,” he said.

At Clark County’s Board of Health meeting Wednesday, County Councilor Temple Lentz brought up concerns around employees at Firestone not having health insurance. The company said it does provide health benefits to employees, but the company did not say how many employees use their benefits and did not disclose their pay. Hinerfeld said questions in those areas were distracting from the important issues.

“I think we are getting off topic,” Hinerfeld said. “We want to make sure our staff and community are safe. We want to make sure that when people come back to work, our people feel safe. Gosh darn it, if we don’t get back up and running pretty quickly, we’re going to have a lot of farmers who are going to be in trouble.”

Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 47013, told The Columbian on Tuesday that he has concerns around Firestone’s care for its employees.

“The Firestone facility is not taking seriously the requirement for physical distancing,” Hamilton Rosales said. “If they required all these things, why did they have such an outbreak?”

Hinerfeld said the company is hoping to restart some of its production before the end of the week but said that isn’t a certainty. Safety measures will need to be in place first.

At Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said the company would not be allowed to bring workers back in until Public Health and L&I were satisfied with safety measures. Employees would also need to need to pass their quarantine protocol.

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Columbian staff writer