PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A COVID-19 outbreak reported in Multnomah County this week happened at Townsend Farms in Fairview, KOIN 6 News learned.
State and county health officials reported a new outbreak at a business with multiple locations on Wednesday but declined at the time to name the business or disclose exactly how many cases were tied to it. Willamette Week was the first to report the name of the business.
Multnomah County Health Officials said some of the 41 new cases reported in the county on Wednesday were related to the outbreak. The Oregon Health Authority said seven of the 49 new cases reported across Oregon on Thursday were related to the outbreak.
Townsend Farms grows, processes and distributes berries at multiple locations, including Fairview, Cornelius and Woodburn. This would explain why Multnomah County said the state is leading the investigation into the outbreak at a business that operates in the Tri-county region and the Willamette Valley.
Public health investigators said the outbreaks at Townsend Farms locations in Multnomah and Washington counties affect 48 of the approximately 350 people who arrived in the Portland metro area on May 23 and 24 to harvest fruit at sites owned by Townsend in Fairview and Cornelius. The Oregon Health Authority said those who tested were likely exposed to the virus before coming to Oregon. Another 13 tests were still pending on Thursday.
OHA said county and state officials worked with Townsend Farms to test all seasonal workers who came to the Portland metro area over the Memorial Day weekend.
“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. State and local public health officials are committed to working with the agriculture industry to reduce the risk of infection for workers.”
Officials with OHA, the counties and Oregon Department of Agriculture are helping Townsend Farms put safety and health measures in place, including providing separate housing to quarantine anyone who is sick with or has been exposed to the virus and emphasizing infection control through hand washing, physical distancing and the use of PPE.
Townsend Farms said its employees are sheltering in place and not going out in public.
The outbreak affecting Townsend Farms workers in Fairview and Cornelius is separate from an outbreak at the same company that started April 29, OHA said. The earlier outbreak involved permanent employees who tested positive at the Fairview location. The cases were reported to OHA, which in turn reported them to the public at the time.
OHA data shows nine complaints were filed against Townsend Farms. The complaints filed in late March regarded failures to socially distance employees at the business’ farm and office facilities. However, starting in late April, the complaints took a darker turn.
“People are sick working 7 days a week. Afraid they are going to catch virus,” according to OSHA’s notes on April 27.
On April 29, another complaint was lodged against Townsend Farms, this time allegedly happening at its berry farm packaging plant in Fairview.
“There is poor cleaning and sanitation in the packaging plant,” an OSHA employee noted. “Complainant was told that there were 4 positive cases for COVID-19 among the workers.”
Days later, on May 1, another complaint was lodged.
“Employees are working in close proximity of one another and are not adhering to the 6 foot social distancing rule. There is inadequate PPE. Employees who are sick are still working and threatened with their job if they miss work. Supervisors are threatening and belittling workers who express concern for COVID-19,” an OSHA employee wrote.
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