Team of state, CDC specialists focuses on hard-hit Yakima County

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Washington Department of Health said it responded to a call for help from the Yakima Health District earlier this month by sending a team of infection specialists, including two CDC experts, to help control the spread of the coronavirus in the region that’s seen an infection rate two to nearly five times higher than the rest of the state.

The county of roughly 250,000 people ranked second after King County, the state’s most populous county, in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington as of Monday. More than 60 percent of the county’s jobs are in essential industries, from agriculture to health care.

DOH said the team first visited long-term care facilities and provided guidance while helping in areas like testing and personal protective equipment. But health officials say it became clear the county had a much larger problem.

“There was a large number of outbreaks in their meat packing plants, vegetable packing plants, fruit packing plants, farms and any other agricultural factories or setting,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases.

Lindquist said based on the team’s work in Yakima County, a heavily agricultural region, there needed to be additional statewide guidance for factories and farms. DOH said its specialists in Yakima provided recommended steps companies could take to improve social distancing measures while the state has worked to make reforms mandatory.

“We spent a good two weeks creating guidance, which is finalized today for agricultural settings; farm and factory,” said Lindquist. “Making recommendations from a public health perspective.”

The spread of the virus in Yakima County has led agricultural workers to go on strike who claim their employers are not implementing social distancing measures to protect them from the virus. On Tuesday, a group of workers on strike traveled to Olympia to hold a protest and deliver complaints against companies to the state while demanding Gov. Jay Inslee take action.

“They want basic protections from COVID-19,” said Edgar Franks, an organizer with Familias Unidas por la Justicia. “Every time they try to raise these concerns, they get threatened or disciplined.”

As Yakima County works to stop outbreaks, the state says transmission of the virus in other parts of the Washington is on the decline, clearing the way for some counties to move into phase two of reopening.