Farmworkers test positive for COVID-19 at Washington orchard

Dozens of farm workers at a Central Washington orchard have tested positive for COVID-19, though they weren’t experiencing symptoms, according to a newspaper reported published Saturday.

Stemilt Ag Services, which operates the orchard, and local health officials tested the farm workers in East Wenatchee after some fruit packaging warehouse workers tested positive, The Spokesman-Review reported. The company said it decided to expand testing to orchard workers as a precaution.

Of the 71 agricultural workers who were tested, 36 were positive for COVID-19, Stemilt reported this week.

Despite social distancing measures in place at the orchards, there were a high number of positive cases, said Barry Kling, administrator at Chelan-Douglas Health District. Some people who have COVID-19 show no symptoms.

“We’ve been relying on symptom checks for deciding who needs to be tested, and who needs to be isolated,” Kling said. “And maybe we need to think differently about the whole thing.”

Stemilt was one of the first companies in the region to test a group of workers that was asymptomatic, but the company is still evaluating its next steps, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt marketing director, in an email. Stemilt has been following Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention recommendations for social distancing.

Workers who tested negative will be retested and are in isolation, according to a Stemilt press release. All workers who were tested are work visa holders and arrived around February.

United Farm Workers and other advocates filed a lawsuit about a week ago against Washington state, arguing that farm workers do not have adequate protections. The groups called on the state departments of Health and of Labor & Industries to update safety guidelines.

United Farm Workers is a union but does not represent the Stemilt workers who were tested.

The state issued a draft of new guidelines for temporary agricultural worker housing, which include increased sanitation practices, social distancing, isolation of workers who tested positive and approval for the use of tents to house temporary workers. The rules are expected to be adopted on May 1 by the Department of Labor & Industries.