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Gov. Inslee Visits Brewster As Farmworker COVID Cases Spike In Okanogan County

Jessica Robinson / NW News Network
Brewster, in Okanogan County, shown here in 2013, is one of the primary areas of north-central Washington's tree-fruit industry -- for growing, packing and shipping.

Washington state health officials are hoping to get a handle on an outbreak of COVID-19 Okanogan County. Gov. Jay Inslee visited the area Thursday and says there are plans for increases in testing, improvements to farmworkers conditions and access to medical care.

He came to north-central Washington and spoke with farmworker advocates and tribal, city and county officials. 

Many of the county’s cases have spread in the small town of Brewster, where there is a large tree-fruit growing, packing and shipping industry. According to public health officials, there have been 885 positive cases in Okanogan County –– 518 in Brewster.

Inslee said many of central Washington’s hotspots have “to some degree” followed harvests, including in Yakima and the Tri-Cities areas. COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on immigrants, communities of color and agricultural workers.

“The labor intensive agriculture presents environments that are just ripe for high transmission rates. The higher intensity of the agricultural, labor-intensive, the more transmission we’ve experienced,” Inslee said.

He says an important part of keeping people safe is to improve medical assistance to farmworkers who live in housing camps.

“I think that there still needs to be some work done to coordinate the local healthcare providers, the farmworker clinics, with the agricultural businesses,” he said.

At least two foreign H-2A farmworkers have died after contracting COVID-19. Both worked at Gebbers Farms, a top apple and cherry grower in the region headquartered Brewster. At the end of July, the state Department of Labor and Industries investigated housing camps after receiving complaints.

“Gebbers Farms respects and values each and every employee, and we take their health and wellness seriously. We have and will continue to work hard to support our employees through this challenging time,” CEO Cass Gebbers wrote in a statement on the company’s website.

Gebbers says it employs around 2,500 guest workers this season. Inslee said the company is starting wide-scale testing at its processing facility.

“I was pleased to hear that Gebbers will do some increased testing, particularly on their non-housed employees that are having a lot of transmission that are coming in from the community,” Inslee said of a Thursday meeting with growers.

But, if needed, the state could implement additional testing requirements, if large employers fail to test workers quickly.

“We have taken enforcement action where it is needed,” he said. “What I’m saying is, we do have legal requirements, and we do need people to follow them.”

Additionally, in response to a question about whether H-2A farmworkers could have been infected with COVID19 before coming to the U.S., Inslee said, “We think the vast, vast, vast majority of infections that are in Okanogan (County), are transmissions that occurred in Okanogan (County).”

Mobile Testing Sites 

The National Guard and county health department will set up a mobile testing unit going to multiple Okanogan County towns through Tuesday, August 18. Locations so far include:

-2 p.m. - 7 p.m., , Aug. 14, LifeLine, 912 Koala Ave., Omak

-7 a.m. - 12 p.m., Aug. 15, Brewster High School, 503 S 7th St., Brewster

-1 p.m. - 6 p.m., Aug. 16, at the Winthrop Barn, 51 WA-20, Winthrop

-2 p.m. – 7 p.m., Aug. 18, Pateros-Brewster Resource Center, 169 Pateros Mall, Suite A

Local health officials said earlier that hospital capacities are stretched thin in the region.

“What does that mean for citizens of our county? We had to send someone to Vancouver! It’s ridiculous,” director of community health Lauri Jones said at an earlier county board of health meeting.

Inslee recently announced a $40 million dollar fund to help people who don’t have access to unemployment or stimulus funds because of their citizenship status. A separate 3 million dollar fund will help food workers who have to stay home because of COVID.

“This is really important because we have heard about folks who have been unable or unwilling to isolate because they have had to feed their families,” Inslee said.

Northwest Public Broadcasting reporter Enrique Pérez de la Rosa contributed to this story.

Courtney Flatt covers environmental and natural resources issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington's Tri-Cities. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt.

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