Monday, October 18, 2021

Seafood plant calling shots in Covid outbreak

County response sidelined in aftermath of record sickness

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NEWPORT — A Lincoln County pandemic task force has been idled by a lack of information about the Covid-19 surge at a Pacific Seafood processing plant, where 124 confirmed cases of the disease on June 7 accounted for Oregon’s largest single-day outbreak to date.

Health experts nevertheless claimed the risk of infection to the wider community remains “low” if safety protocols, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and handwashing, are undertaken.

“What we’ve found here is a group of people with a high positive rate, so the virus is definitely within Lincoln County with some risk to residents,” said Dr. Paul Cieslak of the Oregon Health Authority, during a June 8 video press conference attended by county and state officials and a dozen reporters. “But it’s pretty much contained within this group.”

But county and state officials also acknowledged the limits of local health specialists to move quickly against a sudden outbreak, saying Pacific Seafood has not yet released the names or residences of the affected workers. Contact tracing is vital to blunting transmission of the disease, yet a score of county workers trained to follow the trail of Covid-19 are effectively sidelined as the fish-processing company reportedly conducts its own emergency response.

“Even though we have quite a little army standing by, all the people who tested positive have been informed by the company (Pacific Seafood) and told they need to isolate, and they are also asking the families also to isolate,” said Rebecca Austen, head of the Lincoln Co. Health Department. “If they need help with food or medicine, they have people ready to do it.”

Austen said the county, which formed a rapid-reaction team three months ago, has no authority to force Pacific Seafood to divulge data around the outbreak.

Despite evidence that food-processing plants are leading portals for the disease, Austen acknowledged that steps to oversee safety measures at Pacific Seafood were never fully taken. After initial meetings to supply “toolkits” of information to Pacific Seafood and other industrial operations, including the mill at Toledo, oversight by county and state officials ceased.

“We were hoping to do active surveillance, but that didn’t happen,” Austen commented. “I don’t recall why. As far as whether or not the toolkits were carried out I cannot speak to that. I don’t know how well they did in following the procedures.”

Austen said the county attempted to conduct “an active survey” to establish a baseline among plant workers but were “unable to carry out” the task. While fish plant officials claim to have checked workers for symptoms of the disease, Austen said the results would be meaningless without testing to identify asymptomatic or silent carriers. Such testing is not required by government health authorities, though Austen said her agency is working to change the policy.

An official with the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, Rustin Rock, said his agency descended on the Pacific Seafood plant after the outbreak was reported.

“We predominantly discussed policies the firm was putting into place at the time,” he responded. “We did not dig into their past practices.”

Recommended plant protocols include checking employee temperatures, watching for symptoms, physical distancing and sanitation procedures.

County commissioner Kaety Jacobson urged citizens to restrain from singling-out groups such as migrant workers for “blame.”

Kaety Jacobson

“This is a scary thing for our county,” observed Jacobson, who said the pandemic had appeared “distant” until now. “We have rules to prevent the spread of Covid, but not a rule against kindness. The ‘blame-the-victim’ mentality is incredibly disheartening.”

She added that local hospital capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment remain available “at this point.”

Austen said that that a group of Serbian and Ukrainian workers hired by Pacific Seafood that are housed at local Newport hotels have all tested negative.

“As far as we know everybody who has become sick is a resident of this county,” Austen asserted, although company officials still retain that information.

The first positive case at the plant was reported June 2, with additional cases confirmed the next day. By June 5, Pacific Seafood tested 376 workers, reporting 124 cases on June 7.

A spokesman for the company was invited to attend Monday’s press conference but declined, citing responsibilities to control the plant outbreak.

Rick Beasley
Rick Beasley is a simple writer who collects sniper rifles for a hobby. During an astonishing publishing career that spans five decades and continues at Lincoln City Homepage, he has collected 17 awards for excellence in journalism from various organizations including nine first-place Best Writing awards from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

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  1. Should you not all stop barking at one another? We all need to work together, not against one another. I’m sure those who caught the COVID19 did not plan on this, nor the company. Should the company-county share information? YES so we can protect others and their families.
    I feel the country opened to soon/fast, but we were all between a rock in a hard place. So please respect CDC and guidelines, mask would be a good place to start when in public.

  2. We need answers from Pac Seafoods. They say all the positive test results come from Lincoln county residents, I’m not sure I believe that. What constitutes a resident, how long do they have to live here to be labeled a resident. I’m not blaming the workers who were brought in, but I like to know if they were tested or quarantined first? Seems PS is hiding something.

  3. . . . lie! you have been outed! I see you need 2 different dialects of Guatemalan in order to do tracing. Your crap operation is toast!

  4. People are tired of no raises in this decade! If a company can’t pay all the employees an updated good living wage with benefits, then they need to go and not try opening a business again until they can. Also the practice of making an employee do the work of two people concentrated into one person should be removed. Do you also expect the same quality? A lot of companies have become chinese labor camps.

  5. @ “me”
    “Not enough locals apply for seafood processing jobs, thats why they go to other places for employees. Duh”.
    FALSE. They use them as private contractors because locals want a living wage & benefits like healthcare. A living wage on the coast is quite high.

  6. John Boy: many employees are refusing to come back to work because they are receiving more on unemployment than if they were working. Employers have to report them to the employment office before they are cut off and many are reluctant to do so

  7. Citizen Z BS. If your job calls you back you are disqualified from receiving unemployment. You obviously don’t work and don’t have a clue.

  8. Oh boy the super spreaders are all the shoppers at the grocery stores who seem to get off on cutting in front of me to grab a can of beans. Suppose since I wear a mask I am a target for some reason.

  9. That’s because they are too lazy to go work. Newport has plenty of people on unemployment they just won’t make them work. Where I work right now we have a lot of people that will not come back to work because they’re making more money. yes I did work 12 hours that day. You shouldn’t be crying that you can’t open up your business because Kate Brown told you you couldn’t you need to stand up for yourself and do it.

  10. Leave the workers alone they came into this county did not self quarantine as required now have caused the county to loose the opportunity to move to phase 2.
    I would be working in my business if I could but because of these so called workers bringing there problems here I am stuck as many other small businesses in this area. I depend on tourists for my shop but because of pacific seafood I’m in big trouble maybe pacific will pay my rent while they are not cooperative. I guess the county and the city feel that pacific seafood is the only business in Newport that is important

  11. Ok time to call bull shit we were told that the county and the state had the legal right to tell us to close up stay home and other such nonsense now we are told that they have no authority to force the seafood plant to supply the required information.
    Ok the county needs to open up of now face a major backlash, which is due , talking out of both sides ends bitting you in the end.

  12. I worked 13 hours today Citizen Z, dealing with the out-of-state infested idiots. How many hours did you work? I’m a dem and I work my a$$ off. You know nothing about others who post here. The 1 percent means something other than you’re unique because you married your first cousin, idiot. Hint: your not the 1% they’re talking about.

  13. I was so baffled because I thought Beasley finally wrote an objective article. Then I realized, “oh, if you focus on the seafood plant outbreak, it deflects attention from the fact that Lincoln County cases were growing an amazing rate before the seafood plant outbreak”. So the tripling or quadrupling of cases that were troubling before the outbreak can be overshadowed and there is an admitted unsettling situation at hand, but it was all the seafood plant. If you look past that though, it was a pretty good article, because the seafood plant and meat packing plants are billion dollar industries that exploit workers. It’s their way. I agree with that.

  14. Yeah that smell is your upper lip. Leave the workers alone. They are working unlike a lot of lazy people that are staying on unemployment.

  15. I want to know if the Domestic infected people went out and shopped, got gas, sat next to someone at the Bar! What hotels are workers packed into and are they violating any regulations! Did they eat at the same place as I.
    Boycott Pacific Seafood . . . they are hiding information!
    Something Smells Fishy!


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