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Cases at seafood plant cause spike in Oregon COVID numbers

June 9, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this July 22, 2019, file photo, Oregon State University's Marine Studies Building is viewed from the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, Ore. by critics. More than 120 workers at a seafood plant in the coastal Oregon city have tested positive for coronavirus, causing a spike in the state's COVID-19 numbers. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)
FILE - In this July 22, 2019, file photo, Oregon State University's Marine Studies Building is viewed from the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, Ore. by critics. More than 120 workers at a seafood plant in the coastal Oregon city have tested positive for coronavirus, causing a spike in the state's COVID-19 numbers. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Newport, a small coastal city, has been a blip on the radar when it comes to confirmed coronavirus cases in Oregon. Until Sunday.

“Up until this point the pandemic has been distant. We have watched it unfold in other communities around the world, but not in our own,” Kaety Jacobson, chair of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, said during a news conference Monday. “In the last 48 hours that has changed. We now have a large outbreak in our community.”

More than 120 workers at Pacific Seafood, a Newport seafood plant, have tested positive for the virus, the company said Sunday.

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“This county has done really well over the last three months,” said David Long, the health officer for Lincoln County Public Health. “I think many of us felt that it was never really going to hit us here and so, waking up yesterday and hearing the news about 124 cases at Pacific Seafood was a shock to many of us.”

The first signs of a possible outbreak came June 2, when Pacific Seafood had its first positive case. The next day, there were additional confirmed cases. By Sunday, 376 workers had been tested. Out of those tested, 53 employees and 71 locally-based contractors tested positive, according to Pacific Seafood.

About 95% were asymptomatic, state officials said.

The outbreak contributed to Oregon’s highest case total in a single day as the state reported 146 cases Sunday.

Health officials have reported about 5,000 positive cases, with at least 169 deaths.

Pacific Seafood, which manages all parts of the supply chain from harvesting and fishing to processing, and distribution of seafood, beef, pork and poultry, has since suspended all operations.

Lincoln County Public Health officials are working on contact tracing and urging people who know they have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19, to self-isolate.

The county isn’t the only area that has seen an uptick in cases coming from the agriculture and food packing industry. In the state’s most recent weekly report published June 3, there were 19 worksites with outbreaks. The majority were agriculture or food packing businesses.

Among those worksites are two Townsend Farms locations in Multnomah County with 86 cases and National Frozen Foods in Linn County with 41 cases. Officials said the next weekly report, with updated outbreak at worksites tallies, will be published Wednesday.

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Six coronavirus deaths have been associated with workplace outbreaks.

“A lot of people are working and living in conditions that are higher risk. For example, agricultural workers, many of whom are kind of in labor camps or labor housing, are in close quarters,” said Tom Jeanne a deputy health officer at the Oregon Health Authority.

Instead of implementing fines or penalties, Paul Cieslack, the medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations, said the health authority, Department of Agriculture and county officials are working with agriculture and food packing businesses to create guidelines to reduce the spread of the disease as well as provide more testing.

“We want to work with them and get them to adopt practices that will reduce the risk to everyone,” Cieslack said.

For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues