PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Health Authority, in coordination with local agencies, are investigating an outbreak at Townsend Farms Cannery locations in Multnomah and Washington counties.
The outbreak currently affects 48 out of about 350 people who arrived in the Portland area May 23 and 24 to harvest fruit from Townsend-owned sites in Fairview and Cornelius, OHA said. Test results for 13 more people are still pending. Officials believe the people affected were exposed to the virus prior to coming to Oregon, although they were unsure where the workers were before they came to Portland.
Seasonal workers were set to come to the metro area over Memorial Day weekend. State and county officials coordinated with the company to plan for the testing of all workers shortly after they arrived.
"People employed in agriculture are essential workers. They are also a vital part of our community," said Patrick Allen, OHA director. "The agricultural work environment can put them at higher risk of infection from a communicable disease like COVID-19, and we need to do everything we can to reduce that risk."
According to its website, Townsend Farms grows, harvests, processes and delivers berries to stores across the country and has five receiving stations in the Northwest.
Health officials first made news of an outbreak in the Portland metro area public on Wednesday, when it announced there were 71 new coronavirus cases, of which 41 were in Multnomah County. However, the OHA refused to identify the business, even after multiple requests for more information by KGW. Townsend Farms' connection to the outbreak was first reported by Willamette Week and The Oregonian, before OHA publicly announced the company's involvement Thursday afternoon.
Kim Toevs, the director of Multnomah County's communicable disease program, said it is a routine practice to not inform the public about outbreaks at companies.
“We as a usual point of practice do not do a public notification of a business worksite where there is an outbreak... unless we feel there are employees or customers or some kind of public contact that we have not been able to reach individually that we need to get ahold of,” Toevs said during a phone conference call Thursday.
The OHA said there's no risk to surrounding communities because of the outbreak. The agency, along with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Multnomah and Washington counties, are working with Townsend Farms to ensure infection control and other safety measures are in place. Those measures include:
- Providing separate housing so people exposed to COVID-19, and those who are sick, can quarantine and isolate themselves while they are ill (the company reports that employees are sheltering in place and not going out in public).
- Ensuring food is brought onto the properties for the workers during this period.
- Emphasizing infection control through hand hygiene, physical distancing, face coverings and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Protecting drivers who bring workers to and from worksites with PPE.
- Ensuring proper housing so symptomatic workers can be separated from worksites.
- Providing education and outreach, through the counties and their community partners, directly to farmworkers to inform them about how to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.
It's not the first time Townsend Farms has dealt with a coronavirus outbreak during the pandemic. There was an outbreak on April 29 that sickened 53 employees at the company's Fairview location, Toevs said.
According to documents obtained by KGW, the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration has received nine COVID-related workplace complaints about Townsend Farms since March.
The most recent complaints filed May 12 read:
- Social distancing and sanitation is not performed or maintained, 30 positive cases of COVID-19 at facility
- Employees tested positive for COVID-19 last week and are back at work four days after testing positive.