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July 4, 2020

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In Our View: Outbreak at Firestone a learning opportunity

The Columbian
Published:

A coronavirus outbreak at Vancouver’s Firestone Pacific Foods should serve as a test case and a learning opportunity.

The company’s plight is a microcosm of changes that will ripple throughout the economy — the need for effective testing, effective prevention measures and contact tracing. Until a vaccine is developed and widely available, American businesses must adjust to a new reality created by the pandemic.

By late last week, more than 70 Firestone employees and more than 30 of their close contacts had been confirmed as having COVID-19. With the company employing about 150 workers, the widespread infections demonstrate the ease with which coronavirus can spread. As CEO Josh Hinerfeld said: “We thought we had a pretty good plan in place and, boy, it bit us in the rear end. This genie is not back in the bottle.”

An investigation by Clark County Public Health found multiple areas in need of improvement with regard to infection control at the plant along Fruit Valley Road. Those included a lack of physical distancing on the production line and during breaks, and sharing clock-in and clock-out paperwork. By May 19, county officials asked the plant to halt operations.

Hinerfeld said supervisors discussed social distancing with employees, implemented hygiene practices and provided masks beginning in early March. Weeks later, daily temperature screenings were implemented. “We could have done better,” he said. “We learned we didn’t do enough. I hope from this experience that others will learn from it.”

That will be the most important aspect of the outbreak at Firestone. Nationally, food processing companies have been particularly susceptible to outbreaks, with employees typically working in close quarters. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat processing company, has had more than 7,000 employees infected throughout its operations.

The situation demonstrates the difficulty of restarting the economy. Food processing plants are an essential linchpin in the nation’s food chain, connecting producers to consumers. But if employees are unable to work or plants are forced to shut down, that chain breaks and leaves store shelves empty. As Hinerfeld told the Clark County Board of Health: “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.”

For the immediate future, that emphasizes the need for personal protection equipment to keep the virus from spreading among employees; for robust testing to catch an outbreak in the early stages; and for contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19 from a production plant to the community at large. Notably, Hinerfeld said many of Firestone’s infected employees were asymptomatic, meaning they might have been spreading the virus without being aware they were infected.

In the long run, the situation hints at widespread changes for businesses. Social distancing must become the norm, even after the pandemic has passed; so, too, will physical barriers and frequent sanitization in work places. In one example, Firestone has adopted plans to sanitize fork lifts between uses. The new normal will be costly for businesses — and, therefore, consumers — but it will be more cost-effective than having operations shut down because of an outbreak.

The coronavirus outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods is believed to be the largest workplace infection in the metro area. Ideally, other companies in the region can learn from it to help keep employees — and the public — safe from the virus.

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