Health department says OHA denied testing before outbreak occurred

Pacific Seafood in Newport (Photo by Casey Felton)

LINCOLN COUNTY — Lincoln County Public Health says the Oregon Health Authority denied a request to test workers at a Newport fish processing plant prior to a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility the first week of June, which infected 124 workers and at least eight of their close contacts.

The Daily Astorian reported on Monday that the health authority had denied a request from Clatsop County to recommend mandatory COVID-19 testing for essential workers at seafood plants and other food processors in the county.

According to The Astorian, “Outbreaks at Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria and Pacific Seafood in Warrenton prompted Michael McNickle, the county’s public health director, to call for mandatory, continuous testing paid for by businesses.” The authority told McNickle in an email that although there was internal discussion on the matter, they were “not at this time recommending mandatory, continuous testing at food processing facilities.”

Nicole Fields, deputy director of Lincoln County Public Health, said the local health department made a similar request weeks prior to the outbreak at Pacific Seafood’s five processing plants in Newport, which the health authority also denied. Pacific Seafood announced June 7 that it tested all 376 workers at the plants, and 124 tested positive, making it the second largest workplace outbreak in the state after the one at Oregon State Penitentiary. The outbreak has since grown to 132 due to positive contacts of employees, according to OHA data.  It’s the largest state outbreak in food processing, a sector heavily impacted by the pandemic, representing 11 of the state’s 20 biggest workplace outbreaks.

An email to the health authority regarding the local health department’s request was not returned by press time. The News-Times has filed a records request for a clearer understanding of communications between the state agency and the county.

The health department is still in the process of case investigations to identify all close contacts of positive Pacific Seafood workers, a task that was about 80 percent complete as of Monday. Fields told county commissioners on Monday that the health authority was now assisting in multiple areas of response, including testing supplies. County health received about 350 test kits and planned to hold an appointment-only mass-testing event on Tuesday, in which it expected to swab 333 close contacts of confirmed cases, Fields said. She said the department was also working on a program to test workers at long-term-care facilities.

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