Kittitas County Pauses Early Reopening With New COVID-19 Cases At Food Plant

May 8, 2020

Updated May 11, 2020, 5 p.m. PT:

After weeks of no new cases, at least 34 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Kittitas County. That’s after county health workers tested nearly 170 employees at a food processing plant in Ellensburg to investigate a suspected outbreak.

The plant, owned by Twin City Foods, will remain closed until at least May 19.

The outbreak put Kittitas County’s application to reopen some businesses early on hold. The county was initially one of 10 identified as eligible to move faster to Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan.

Health officials say the outbreak is a chance for the county to test out its response to future flare-ups of cases.

Original Story, May 8, 2020:

Kittitas County was in line to move early into phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reopen Washington. But the county’s application to do so is now paused.

Health officials in Kittitas County have found at least one new positive case of COVID-19: a worker at a Twin City Foods processing plant in Ellensburg. The news came Friday after more than three weeks of no new confirmed cases. That plus the county’s low population made Kittitas County eligible to lift social distancing measures earlier than other parts of the state.

County spokesperson Kasey Knutson says the state has put the county’s application on hold while the Kittitas Health Department investigates a potential outbreak.

“The state is essentially watching to see how this is going to go for Kittitas County,” Knutson said. “But it’s an opportunity for us to showcase that we can actually do what we said we were going to do in that application when we’re talking about things like mass testing, isolation and quarantine, contract tracing for patients if they do turn out to be positive.”

The plant, owned by Twin City Foods, closed Friday while health officials tested nearly 160 employees.

“For weeks, we were in the top five and later the top 10 for counties for testing per capita. So, we were testing a lot and still weren’t finding high rates of COVID-19 in our county,” Knutson said. “And really, I think we can attribute that to the work that our residents have done and the sacrifices they’ve made.

Health officials expect test results within two days but don’t know how long the county’s application to reopen will be delayed.

The news came on the same day the state approved reopening applications from five other rural eastern Washington counties: Ferry, Pend Oreille, Lincoln, Columbia and Garfield.

Applications Approved

Inslee delivered the good news for those five counties in a Friday afternoon press conference.

“Today, Secretary of Health John Wiesman approved variances for five counties: Pend Oreille, Lincoln, Ferry, Garfield and Columbia,” Inslee announced. “Others are now getting a little bit further reviews: Skamania, Kittitas and Wahkiakum.”

They are among the 10 counties deemed ready to move directly to the second phase on the state’s four-phase process for restarting business and economies. One county not on that list, Stevens, also applied, but wasn’t granted a variance because it’s not scheduled to officially qualify until Monday, May 11.

Matt Schanz said he was pleasantly surprised that the state acted so quickly on the counties’ request.

Schanz is the administrator for the Tri-County Health District, which serves Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties. He submitted the variance application earlier this week. He credited his staff, county commissioners, hospital officials, businesspeople and others who gathered information so the counties could quickly apply for the state’s approval.

But he cautioned that even though some businesses can reopen immediately, others – even those allowed to reopen in phase two – may have to wait a few days until the state issues specific guidelines for reopening for their industry.

The governor also announced Friday that protocols have been issued for landscaping businesses and companies that want to offer curbside retail services.

Enrique Pérez de la Rosa covers central Washington and the Yakima Valley for Northwest Public Broadcasting. Doug Nadvornick is news and program director for Spokane Public Radio.