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Spokane confirms 31 COVID-19 cases in two days, with most tied to outbreak at pasta factory

By Adam Shanks and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

A coronavirus outbreak has infected 24 employees and shut down the Philadelphia Macaroni Co. plant in Spokane.

The company confirmed Friday that 24 workers out of 72 tested positive for COVID-19 this week just as state officials Friday declared Spokane County ready to reopen parts of its economy after two months of pandemic lockdown.

The company has tested all of its employees and disinfected the facility. The company is evaluating its reopening timeline, it said in a news release Friday.

The outbreak led to a jump in Spokane County’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. Spokane had gone the entire month of May with no more than five COVID-19 cases reported every day – until Thursday. And then Friday.

There have been 31 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in the county in the last two days.

Employees at the Philadelphia Macaroni plant have been working throughout the pandemic with increased safety protocols, such as more sanitation processes and employee training. The company is considered an essential business, and makes the pasta that goes into Macaroni & Cheese. Philadelphia Macaroni requires employees to wear masks, and employees are screened before they enter the factory. The company is working with the Spokane Regional Health District to conduct contact tracing as well as to determine further outbreak prevention measures.

A month ago, none of the company’s employees had tested positive for COVID-19, The Spokesman-Review reported, as the factory produced 1.5 million pounds of pasta per week.

Before the two-day jump in coronavirus cases, Spokane’s daily infection counts was trending downward so much that the county was granted a Phase 2 variance on Friday.

Kelli Hawkins, public information officer at the health district, said 20 of the 31 new cases reported Thursday and Friday are tied to a single outbreak.

The health district would not confirm where the outbreak took place, though the Philadelphia Macaroni Co.’s news release confirmed cases in 24 of its employees.

Hawkins said it is the policy of the district to not disclose that information.

“Unless there’s a need for public safety for us to disclose that information, we’re giving them the opportunity to take care of the people they’re serving,” Hawkins said.

In declining to disclose the source of the outbreak, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz pointed to the early days of the virus’ spread in the United States and how Asian Americans were stigmatized.

“I would love to have our society more willing to be able to disclose that kind of information, as has and is being done successfully elsewhere, but we’re not in that place right now,” Lutz said.

Hawkins said the outbreak was not due to a violation of the state’s Phase 1 guidelines, which Spokane County met before Friday’s decision to progress to Phase 2.

“It’s a good example of how people in a congregant setting can spread it to one another,” Hawkins said, noting that “even a place that puts measures in place can have this happen.”

With the 31 additional cases, Spokane County has had 450 people with COVID-19. There are now nine people in local hospitals receiving treatment for the virus. No additional deaths due to the virus were reported on Friday.

Hawkins said she expects case counts could could continue to climb over the weekend.

Health officials also expect case counts to rise in the coming weeks amid the county’s loosened regulations, reopened businesses and more robust contact tracing and testing.

“We are going to see spikes,” Lutz said.

Lutz said the outbreak highlights how contagious the novel coronavirus is, particularly among people in the same household or anyone in prolonged contact with others.

That message will continue to be stressed as Spokane County enters Phase 2 of the reopening plan. Even as businesses reopen and people are allowed to congregate in small groups, Lutz said the approach “needs to be really calibrated,” and cautioned people to avoid being in close proximity to each other without a face covering.

Health district staff were working Thursday and Friday to contain the outbreak.

“My hope is that we’ve had enough contact with those individuals who have been in close contact that we’ll see our numbers go down,” Lutz said.

When case counts peaked in Spokane County in late March, a person could only be tested if they had specific symptoms and, at one point, were at risk of developing severe complications. Now, with more access to testing materials and the ability to trace confirmed cases and contacts in a quick manner, the virus can be “boxed in” when there are outbreaks.

In the case of this latest outbreak, a person who was contacted by the contact tracing team and asked to quarantine for two weeks could be tested for the virus, whether they displayed symptoms or not.

“We know that asymptomatic spread occurs. Therefore, when we have a case, we want to make sure we are appropriately testing those individuals at risk,” Lutz said.

There is a difference between an outbreak, which can be boxed in, and community spread of the disease.

Hawkins said the recent jump in cases has not been due to community spread, which is an important distinction.

“An outbreak would be when you’re all in a congregant setting again and in close contact with someone on a regular basis and within that congregant setting someone tests positive and everyone in their close proximity could test positive because of that setting,” Hawkins said.

Community spread, on the other hand, is when “you don’t know where you got it, so you tested positive but as far as you knew you weren’t in close contact with anyone,” she said.

Spokane County, along with three others, received the green light to advance to Phase 2 on Friday, despite the outbreak. The Department of Health did pause Kittitas County’s application, due to an outbreak investigation.

But Spokane’s outbreak was not as significant as Kittitas County’s, a department spokeswoman confirmed, which is why Spokane was not stopped from moving forward.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.