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State health department issues new safety measures for agricultural workers after strikes, CDC visit

In response to workers’ increasing concerns over the lack of proper safety measures in agricultural settings and food-processing plants, the state Department of Health will release new guidelines to protect the health and safety of essential workers in the agriculture sector during the pandemic.

The decision to issue new protocols comes after fruit-packing warehouse workers began to strike for better safety precautions on May 7 and after officials from the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traveled to Yakima on May 11 at the request of the Yakima Health District.

The health district was seeking help addressing the high number of reported COVID-19 cases in the county, said Scott Lindquist, the Health Department’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, during a press conference.

“What has occurred since that time shows a very clear need for some statewide guidance for factory and farm settings,” Lindquist said.

The recommendations were created to give agricultural companies and farms clear guidance about what to do to reduce the risks of outbreaks, Lindquist said.

Health agency officials recommended that Yakima food-processing employers provide employees with personal protective equipment and implement social distancing measures, he said.

To ensure social distancing, Lindquist said some facility may have to rearrange processing lines, so people aren’t standing shoulder to shoulder.

Other recommendations include using plastic dividers to separate workers who are working within 6 feet of one another, staggering work shifts, providing employees with PPE, screening employees before a shift and sending them home if they’re sick, Lindquist added.

It has been hard to fulfill PPE requests, and the state was only able to provide that equipment to the health care sector until recently, said Reed Schuler, senior policy adviser for the office of the governor.

“We know that congregate settings experiencing outbreaks have very high needs,” Schuler said. “The state has really not had adequate PPE for making additional distributions, but in recent weeks we have really started to get into this territory that were very pleased to be in, which is fulfilling additional requests.”

As a preemptive measure, companies should also work with their local health district to assess the facility before there’s an outbreak, Lindquist said.

“If one of the employees or staff become ill, they should be tested,” he said. “If one person tests (positive) in a facility, then an outbreak response should begin.”

A COVID-19 outbreak is defined as two confirmed cases in a facility within 14 days, and it is recommended that everyone who may have been exposed be tested.

The Department of Health is working to make sure that companies are following these health guidelines and that communities have the information they need, said Elmer Diaz, Department of Health toxicologist, during a question-and-answer session conducted in Spanish.

Workers have complained that employers aren’t following sanitation guidelines or providing them with PPE. The department is working with local health districts to ensure that companies are enforcing safety measures, Diaz said. There’s a potential fine for those who don’t, he added.

The Department of Health is following up with local health districts, because they’re in charge of surveying the companies to make sure they are implementing measures that will protect their workers, Diaz said.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to amend his emergency proclamation to include language ensuring that agricultural facilities will have to comply with the guidelines provided by health agencies.