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Here's what happens when coronavirus strikes a big company in a small Idaho town

Idaho Statesman logo Idaho Statesman 5/20/2020 By Nicole Foy and Audrey Dutton, The Idaho Statesman

The morning after Idaho’s governor said the state was ready to move forward in its plan to reopen the economy, hundreds of people lined up in their cars around a parking lot in rural Weiser. They wanted a test for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease.

A growing cluster of infections had been discovered in Weiser, a town of about 5,400 people. Most of the newly infected people work at a food plant run by Fry Foods — one of the major employers in town. After the first infection was discovered early last week, the company shut down the plant and eventually arranged to test all of its employees and their families.

As of Monday afternoon, 20 workers — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic, according to company representatives. Results were still pending for a number of workers at the Weiser plant and hundreds more employees from the company’s plant in eastern Oregon.

The future of Idaho’s economy and the health of its residents depends in part on its ability to find, track and stop coronavirus outbreaks.

“Idaho is truly a leader for other states to follow, and we have a lot to be proud of,” Gov. Brad Little said last week, in his announcement that Idaho would move into Stage 2 of his reopening plan. “Meanwhile, we’re working to strengthen our capability to deal with the second wave of infections, if that should occur. We know expanded and targeted testing strategy is closely linked to a strong economy.”

But the efforts of Fry Foods to ensure a safe workplace — and prevent a larger outbreak in the community — illuminated holes in the fabric of Idaho’s coronavirus plan.

One official at Fry Foods said a weeklong effort to get employees tested for COVID-19 left him concerned about what will happen in the coming months.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” said Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

But Idaho’s governor and the regional public health district contend that, if anything, the Weiser outbreak shows how quickly they can respond with testing and support.

The leader of a business-led initiative to ramp up Idaho’s coronavirus testing said Monday that he hopes the Weiser outbreak is a turning point for Idaho.

“I woke up this morning with a whole lot of optimism, that we can help employers, that I didn’t have last week,” said Tommy Ahlquist, CEO of BVA Development and a founder of Crush The Curve Idaho.

Ahlquist’s conversations with public health officials over the weekend left him thinking that “Weiser was that galvanizing moment” when the state, local health agencies, employers and private parties that perform the tests start working together, he said.

Businesses don’t have to close after COVID-19 exposure

The outbreak in Weiser began with one sick employee, a family party, then a cascade of plant employees with positive coronavirus tests. Within a week, two food processing plants along the Idaho-Oregon border were shut down as managers frantically did their own contact tracing and tried to procure tests from local clinics and rural hospitals.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington County rose from one to 28 in a seven-day span.

The majority of the Weiser workers and their close contacts are Latino and many speak only Spanish — underscoring the racial and ethnic disparity that has emerged in Idaho’s coronavirus outbreak. The disease is already hitting Hispanic Idahoans harder than other groups. Only 13% of Idahoans are Hispanic, but they are 25% of the state’s COVID-19 cases whose ethnicities are known.

Ahlquist said that, in the past week, Crush The Curve has done mass testing for four different companies where an employee had contracted COVID-19.

“This is going to happen to everyone” at some point in the pandemic, Ahlquist said. “So it’s not a scarlet letter.”

Businesses that screen employees and have them tested are more likely to find COVID-19 cases, he noted.

One challenge, though, is getting those tests in the first place — especially for a virus whose carriers often show no signs or symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added asymptomatic people to its testing priority guidance on May 3. But as of May 18, Idaho’s public health agencies still recommended that health care providers test only people with symptoms. Some health care providers have opted to test asymptomatic patients, in certain cases.

“The Coronavirus Testing Task Force is presenting recommendations to the governor’s Coronavirus Work Group today,” Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr wrote in an email Monday. “I should have more information after the work group has reviewed and made a decision about them later this week. However, the priority for the state has been to test people with symptoms or those who were important from a public health perspective. It was necessary, as you know, to set priorities because of the limited testing supplies.”

Fry Foods, which makes products like onion rings and mozzarella sticks, is one of the largest employers in rural Weiser, a farm town best known for its annual fiddle festival. The company shut down its Weiser plant Sunday night.

The first infected worker had shown up for a shift on Saturday, while still waiting for test results. During the shift, the person handed out masks and smocks to coworkers to use as protection, Wold told the Statesman.

Despite this information, Wold said Southwest District Health — the regional health district for Weiser — told the company it was fine to reopen the next day, as long as it could follow certain precautions.

“Southwest District Health did not advise Fry Foods Inc. to reopen, but has been in daily contact with Fry Foods Inc. since the first case was identified and continues to work with Fry Foods Inc. on a safe reopening plan,” Southwest District Health spokesperson Katrina Williams wrote in an email to the Statesman. “As a business identified as providing an essential service, CDC guidelines clearly state that workers who have been in contact with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, if they have no symptoms, can continue to work as long as they adhere to specific practices that help prevent and slow the transmission of COVID-19.”

The CDC’s guidance to employers as of Monday says that, in most cases, “you do not need to shut down your facility. If it has been less than seven days since the sick employee has been in the facility, close off any areas used for prolonged periods of time by the sick person.”

For a business like Fry Foods, whose role in the food supply makes it part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, the CDC has special guidance. The CDC says essential employees who were exposed to COVID-19 can come to work as long as they don’t have symptoms, but says the business should take actions such as checking for a fever, providing masks and keeping employees 6 feet from each other.

Those recommendations — given as “should,” not “must” — aren’t much more stringent than the CDC’s guidance to all businesses.

Fry Foods decided to close the plant nonetheless, while continuing to pay its employees for the lost work hours.

Gov. Little spokesperson Emily Callihan said Monday that when it learned of the Fry Foods situation, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “rapidly stepped in and worked with Crush The Curve to assure access to accurate and expedited testing through the Idaho State Lab, which was able to provide test results within 24 hours — days ahead of other lab processing times.”

The state “has and continues to meet criteria” to “safely and responsibly reopen Idaho’s economy in stages,” she said. “Ensuring access to testing in instances where there is a suspected outbreak continues to be a critical part of achieving a safe and strong economy.”

Who gets a coronavirus test? Depends where you go

At first, Fry Foods tried to get tests for employees linked to a large family gathering or who had contact with other infected employees. Then, their worried coworkers began calling the plant office, asking to be tested, too. The company later decided to pay for COVID-19 tests for Weiser employees and even some of their family members, worried about the ripple effect on their employees and the small town.

But, as Fry Foods discovered, money wasn’t the only barrier to getting a test.

“’This is absurd,” Wold said he was thinking while trying to find testing. “We’re willing to pay for it. I felt it was a very reasonable suspicion that we had more positives, or at least a larger concern.”

Wold estimated about 90 of the company’s roughly 260 employees in Weiser had been tested at Two Rivers Medical Clinic in Weiser, St. Luke’s Clinic in nearby Fruitland, Weiser Memorial Hospital and others. Some employees were able to get tested while others were turned away.

Crush The Curve Idaho offered on Thursday to arrange mass testing at Fry Foods through Saltzer Health, a large medical practice that is a founding member of Crush The Curve.

As cars of employees and their families began rolling into the Fry Foods parking lot early Friday, Health and Welfare agreed to process the Idaho employees’ tests at a state lab in Boise. That gave them a rapid turnaround time — and meant the tests would be run at no cost to Fry Foods or its employees.

The Statesman asked the department what prompted it to offer to process tests for employees of Fry Foods. Forbing-Orr’s response said, “The state public health lab’s mission includes supporting the local public health districts in outbreak investigations, when needed.”

However, Southwest District Health told the Statesman that it had no outbreaks associated with facilities such as Fry Foods — considering the cluster a part of the broad community outbreak. Health and Welfare said it has run tests through the state lab for other outbreaks and would continue to do so when requested by local health districts. (It wasn’t immediately clear why only Fry Foods employees qualified for state-lab tests if the outbreak wasn’t associated with the facility.)

“Staying on top of COVID-19 outbreaks is a priority for the department, and testing to support the local public health district’s outbreak investigation is critical for that,” Elke Shaw-Tulloch, state public health officer, said in an emailed statement. “This effort with Crush The Curve is a great example of a private and public (state and local) partnership as we move to increase our testing capacity statewide.”

Some Weiser workers arrived at the plant for Crush The Curve testing on Friday with one or two family members who wanted to be tested, too. Fry Foods covered the cost of the family members’ tests, as well as tests for employees from its Ontario, Oregon, plant and some of their close contacts. Wold estimated the total cost at $45,000 to $50,000 — or more.

Nikole Zogg, the director of Southwest District Health, said she thought the effort to contact trace and test Fry Foods employees went well, although it would likely improve. The district has doubled their capacity for investigations, she said.

“We feel like we have the surge capacity at this point to handle any additional types of events that might happen,” Zogg said. “We do anticipate that things that happened at Fry Foods will happen at other facilities and businesses down the road.”

Uncoordinated state response leaves workers, community exposed

Days after Fry Foods closed the Weiser plant, it shut down its food processing plant in Ontario, too. Employees began walking off the floor Thursday night, citing rumors of positive tests among two Ontario workers they believed the company was concealing from them, Wold and some Ontario employees told the Statesman. Two employees told the Statesman workers in the Ontario plant had gone without masks for weeks. Many were making their own.

Wold acknowledged the Ontario plant had a shortage of masks — a problem among many food processing plants right now. He’d also heard the rumors about COVID-positive employees in Ontario, but he said the Malheur County Health Department wouldn’t release that information to him. Fry Foods management was eventually able to independently confirm at least one Ontario employee tested positive. The agency didn’t respond to a message from the Statesman.

Many Fry Foods employees don’t even live in Weiser or Ontario, but commute from all over the Treasure Valley or eastern Oregon. One employee, Lucy Contreras, drives from Emmett to work as an inspector in the Weiser plant. She wasn’t worried about contracting the virus because of Fry Foods’ safety precautions, but was still relieved they were offering tests.

“It’s perfect, because if we are all certain that we are safe, it will assure us not to worry anymore,” said Contreras, 62.

Arturo Nieto, 51, and his wife Blanca Rivera, said despite the efforts of Fry Foods management, many employees still worry about catching the virus. Nieto was able to get a coronavirus test at St. Luke’s in Fruitland, and tested negative. But Rivera, also a Fry Foods employee, still needed a test.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Nieto said Friday, waiting in his car for testing, “because we have kids.”

For now, both plants are shut down and Fry Foods has decided not to reopen until it has a better idea of how many employees might be infected. Without consistent access to testing for its full workforce, Wold said, the company might not feel comfortable reopening with the full staff for weeks or months.

“I guess the community needs to take this more seriously, and they need to be paying attention to the guidelines that are set forth there for a reason,” Wold said. “And it’s for this reason. It’s going to hurt their income. It’s going to hurt the community. It’s going to hurt everybody. So, we need to follow guidelines as best we can.”

Several of the Fry Foods employees who tested positive had attended a large social gathering in the preceding days, he said. But almost all of the positive employees worked closely together on the same production line.

Many Fry Foods employees told the Statesman they were eager to return to work, but knew the cost they could pay going forward if others at work and in the community don’t exercise caution.

“I know that we are taking a risk, to come to work,” Nieto said. “Because many people are not being responsible.”


©2020 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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