UMATILLA COUNTY — As the gush of new COVID-19 cases continues, the state is identifying more Eastern Oregon businesses as workplace outbreaks.
Umatilla County Public Health announced 84 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, July 1, in addition to seven new presumptive cases, bringing the county’s total to 615 cases. While hospitalizations remain stable at eight, the number of people actively sick with COVID-19 has surpassed the number of people who have already recovered from the virus.
Umatilla County’s update arrived on the same day the Oregon Health Authority announced new figures on large workplace outbreaks, a figure that includes both employees and nonwork close contacts who have tested positive for the virus.
OHA first announced an outbreak at Lamb Weston on June 23, but the July 1 update increased its case total from 37 to 72. Hill Meat Co. made the list for the first time on July 1, with OHA reporting five cases connected to the Pendleton pork processor.
In Hermiston, Lamb Weston’s potato processing factory became the third-largest reported worksite outbreak in the state.
After the June 23 report, spokeswoman Shelby Stoolman said the facility had been closed until it was determined it would be safe to reopen, but that Occupational Safety and Health Administration had determined that “we meet or exceed all of the requirements for safe operation.” As of July 2 the facility was still closed, she said, and the increase in cases had been revealed through a testing event the company carried out for all of its employees.
Shearer’s Foods was not listed on OHA’s worksite outbreaks for the week, but the company voluntarily sent out a news release on June 29 that six employees of its Hermiston plant had tested positive for COVID-19 and that all of those employees and close contacts of those employees had been sent home to quarantine with full pay.
“The team members did not come in contact with product and there is no food safety risk,” the news release stated, adding that the company has been using safety measures, such as taking employees’ temperature each day and requiring personal protective equipment.
Hill Meat CEO Jim Cheney said two of his employees tested positive for COVID-19, but couldn’t account for the other three contacts that were included in OHA’s sum.
Cheney said no other employees have tested positive, but Hill Meat also sent co-workers, who worked closely with the positive cases, home as a precaution. Cheney said 20 employees were sent home, about 30% of the plant’s workforce.
Cheney said he didn’t think the employees contracted it from Hill Meat because of the measures the company already has in place. Besides taking worker temperatures at the door and having sick employees stay home, Cheney said employees have always had to wear masks, gloves and other protective equipment as a sanitary measure for working with meat.
OHA also announced two workplace outbreaks in neighboring Morrow County, both in Boardman. Columbia River Processing, a subsidiary of Tillamook Cheese, has 15 cases connected to their facility, while Rader Farms, a subsidiary of the Pasco, Washington-based Oregon Potato Co., has six cases.
According to a statement by Tillamook, the cases are related to employees who tested positive for COVID-19 between June 16 and June 28. The company stated that three of those employees have already recovered and been cleared to return to work, while the rest are recovering at home. Those who are recovering at home or are quarantining after being identified as a close contact are receiving full pay and benefits.
The company indicated that employees have already been wearing masks and social distancing as much as possible, and will continue to do so. The factory has not been shut down.
“We are working closely with state and county health officials to keep them apprised of these developments and they have affirmed that the protocols we have in place to prevent the spread of the virus reflect best industry practices,” the company stated. “On June 17, OSHA, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Agriculture completed an onsite inspection at our Boardman facility and gave us their top rating and high praise for the measures we have in place to protect our workers. We have and will continue to put the health and safety of our employees, and the communities where (we) operate, as our highest priority.”
Oregon Potato Company, which also made OHA's worksite list, did not return a request for comment.
Workplaces weren’t the only places exposed to the virus. On June 30, the Roundup Athletic Club, a Pendleton gym, wrote on its Facebook page that two people who used the facility tested positive for COVID-19. The post further states that the people were asymptomatic and were unaware of their positive tests while training at the RAC. The club did not return a request for comment.
All these outbreaks come as Umatilla and Morrow counties undergo unprecedented surges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Umatilla County’s 615 cases means it’s closing in on Clackamas County for fourth place among Oregon counties, even though the Portland metro county is five times the size of its Eastern Oregon counterpart.
Morrow County didn’t report any new COVID-19 cases on July 1, but its 64 cases represent a sharp increase from even a week prior.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is reporting its own uptick, reporting four new cases to bring the CTUIR’s total to 11.
A press release states that the tribes believe the new cases are connected to large gatherings, like funerals, graduation parties or religious events.