Nearly 60 incoming seasonal contract strawberry harvest workers for Planasa Oregon Operations LLC in Klamath Falls tested positive for COVID-19 before they started work about two weeks ago, according to company officials.
Klamath County Public Health reported that 54 of the 452 individuals the company tested as a precaution before they started harvest work were confirmed COVID-19 positive. Oregon Health Authority released a press release later on Thursday detailing that there were five additional cases reported, for a total of 59, which could include household members of harvest workers.
The outbreak investigation started on Oct. 1, but the initial case count was below the threshold for public disclosure, according to an Oregon Health Authority news release. The delay in reporting resulted from initial uncertainty about the location of the worksite where many of the employees were employed, according to OHA.
The harvest workers lived, worked, and quarantined in Klamath County.
Valeree Lane, of Klamath County Public Health, emphasized to remain respectful of all seasonal workers, who include residents of Klamath County.
“We have people who are not just coming here on a seasonal basis but are actually people that live here full-time that are part of the seasonal workforce,” Lane said. “It wasn’t necessarily just people from outside our area that came in with (COVID-19).”
All workers were asymptomatic and none were hospitalized, according to Klamath County Public Health. Officials are emphasizing there is no risk of community contagion from the outbreak.
Planasa harvesters who tested positive were immediately placed in protected housing in Klamath Falls, according to Michael Delaney, U.S. Business Director for Planasa.
“Once they were identified as positive they were not allowed to come to work,” Delaney said. “We put them in quarantine and we paid for that quarantine here in Klamath Falls.”
The Planasa facility in Klamath Falls remains operational. Contract workers who tested negative for COVID-19 continue to perform their seasonal work. Temperature checks for workers are enforced at the facility, according to Delaney, and individuals with higher than 100.4 degrees are sent home and tested for COVID-19. CDC guidelines are also enforced, according to Delaney.
“The outbreak did not happen at the workplace,” Delaney said. “The workers that came into the facility from various other states and locations to come and work an agricultural job, it came with them.”
Planasa reached out to Klamath Health Partnership in Klamath Falls in May to coordinate testing for incoming contract workers.
“At the end of the day, what we want is to protect our employees, to make sure there is no … outbreak in our operation and protect the community as well,” said Oscar Garcia, human resources manager for Planasa.
Amanda Blodgett, chief operating officer of Klamath Health Partnership, said the partnership with Planasa was critical to containing this outbreak.
“As a federally qualified health center, we receive special grant funding to be able to provide this testing for migrant seasonal farm workers,” Blodgett said. “So we were able to go out and provide this for Planasa at no charge to the organization, at no charge to any of the migrant workers.”
Garcia said the individuals who quarantined were provided food and gift cards to get them through quarantine.
“We really have been working on getting them resources,” Garcia said. “We understand that they came to work, they came to earn their wages, and unfortunately they were put on quarantine.”