Less than 1% of the workforce at Gebbers Farms in Central Washington, where three workers have died of COVID-19, tested positive for the virus, a rate the state official who ordered the tests called low.
More than 3,000 farmworkers were tested and 22 had COVID-19, said Health Secretary John Wiesman. “That’s actually a fairly low positivity rate,” he said.
All 22 of the infected workers did not have symptoms and were grouped together and have continued working, a farm spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The Okanogan County tree fruit farm said it was mourning the three workers who died, but that the test results vindicated its efforts to prevent the coronavirus from spreading among workers.
“We have worked diligently for months now to protect our workers, and we are grateful to learn that the state’s test results show that what we have been doing has helped,” CEO Cass Gebbers said in a statement.
“Are we perfect? Of course not, but we are firmly committed to continual improvement. For perfection, we will have to wait for a vaccine,” he said.
A farmworker from Mexico died of COVID-19 in July. Another farmworker from Jamaica and a third who lived in Okanogan County died in August.
The first death led to an investigation by the Department of Labor and Industries. The department in July issued a notice directing the farm to comply with state-mandated procedures to minimize the threat of the coronavirus spreading in worker housing.
The state rules cap group shelters with bunk beds at 15 workers. The farm, with the help of an infectious disease expert, developed a plan to have 42 workers grouped together, the farm spokeswoman said.
An L&I spokesman said Wednesday the investigation is continuing and that the department will have no comment until it’s completed.
The percentage of Gebbers workers who tested positive for COVID-19 was lower than the 3.5% who tested positive statewide between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3, the most recent week available.
The farm says it employs about 4,500 workers at the peak season in July, including about 2,500 foreign workers. The farm said it wanted to test incoming workers in May, but supplies were unavailable.
To stop the virus from spreading, the farm says it now quarantines new guestworkers.