Pacific Seafood facing new coronavirus outbreak at Warrenton facility
Pacific Seafood's processing plant in Warrenton, Oregon, U.S.A is facing another mass outbreak of COVID-19 amongst its workers, a little more than four months after dealing with more than 130 employees testing positive for the coronavirus among its five plants in the area.
According to a 24 September press release from the Clatsop County Public Health Department, testing of the plant’s 159-member night shift conducted earlier this week by a private laboratory revealed 77 positive results for COVID-19.
“The Oregon Health Authority is taking the lead in arranging for quarantine of the affected individuals, and conducting tracing of family and other contacts of those workers,” according to the release. “The agency is also arranging to test the members of the plant’s day shift Thursday and Friday.”
According to Pacific Seafood General Counsel Tony Dal Ponte, none of the workers who have tested positive have shown any symptoms.
“Out of an abundance of caution, and to provide peace of mind for our team members, we have made the choice to expand testing to all workers at the plant and will conduct approximately 140 more tests on Thursday and Friday,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “Based on past experience with widespread testing, we anticipate this next phase of testing may also include a large number of asymptomatic positive tests results. CDC estimates that 40 percent of infections are asymptomatic, and 50 percent of transmissions occur before symptoms appear, so such results are not indicative of workplace spread.”
Pacific has temporarily suspended operations through its midday shift in Warrenton and is conducting an extensive sanitation regime while the plant is offline, Dal Ponte told SeafoodSource.
“As a food production facility, we already maintain some of the highest standards for health safety,” he said. “We’ll again sanitize while we’re down, but again, there’s no evidence of workplace spread. It’s the community activities that were more concerned about. We’ll quarantine folks that test positive and they’ll be off until they’re cleared to come back to work, which is usually a timeline of nine to 10 days if they’re asymptomatic, and a little longer if they’re displaying symptoms. Once we complete all tests and review the results, we’ll begin a phased approach to reopening.”
Dal Ponte said Pacific is expecting additional positive results to result from the new testing.
“When you test a lot of people, chances are you’re going to get more positive results, so we’re expecting to see more positives when the tests come out. But that’s not indicative of workplace spread, and thus far we’ve seen absolutely no evidence of that,” Dal Ponte said. “The reason Pacific is being highlighted is because we’re one of only a few entities offering widespread testing. We view testing as a good way to partner with area the Oregon Health Authority to help get our hands around what’s in the community and how do we can all work together to contain it.”
Dal Ponte said the current outbreak is believed to have originated at a Labor Day social gathering outside of work hours.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can in our facilities. The bigger challenge is with what’s going on outside our facilities,” Dal Ponte said. “We do everything we can to encourage folks adhere to the same protocols we have at work when they go home. We provide cleaning materials to the team members that are staying in off-site housing, we coordinate with housing providers to ensure they’re doing regular cleanings of rooms, we encourage everyone to wear cloth face coverings, and we ask that they follow all other recommended guidance. But at the end of the day, once they leave their work shift, those team members are responsible for own actions. We can encourage, but we can’t compel.”
A shortage of housing in many of the communities in which Pacific operates in Oregon has exacerbated conditions where workers are in living situations that makes it difficult to comply with social distancing guidelines, Dal Ponte said.
“What we’ve had to do is space folks out to increase the social distancing in our housing facilities. We’ve moved furniture around so there are fewer people in rooms, things like that. But with folks testing positive, we’ve had to isolate them in individual rooms, so there’s even less housing available., and that continues to be a problem not just for our seasonal workforce, but for our coastal communities period,” he said.
Dal Ponte expressed concern for the hundreds of independent commercial fishing boats Pacific partners with, and the economic hardship they and the local communities in coastal Oregon face when a plant like the Warrenton facility shuts down.
“When we’re not operating, they’re not fishing, and they’re not buying all the things they need to keep their boats on the water. So it’s to everyone’s advantage to get back up and operating to keep those boats on the water,” he said.
However, Dal Ponte dismissed concerns that COVID-19 can be passed along from employees who have the virus on seafood packaging, as reports from China have indicated.
“There is absolutely no danger of transmission via food packaging,” Dal Ponte said. “I trust the United States government and health officials over unverified reporting from the Chinese government, and the FDA has been very clear there is no risk to transmission via food products. I suspect that China messaging has more to do with ongoing trade disputes than anything else.”
Dal Ponte said the coronavirus has not been the only threat to its operations the company has been dealing with – extensive wildfires that have burned across the U.S. West have also come close to several of its facilities.
“None of our facilities were in immediate jeopardy or harm,” he said. “Some were on evacuation alerts but that didn’t affect our processing or distribution operations.”
The fires in Oregon are now mostly under control, and the evacuation alerts have been withdrawn, Dal Ponte said.
Photo courtesy of Pacific Seafood