Officials on the Oregon coast are trying to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 that’s affected dozens of people associated with a seafood processing plant.
Pacific Seafood says 124 of its employees and local contractors at a Newport shrimp facility have tested positive for the coronavirus. The company says nearly all of those who tested positive are asymptomatic and none were hospitalized. Still, it’s one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in Oregon, and it comes in a community that’s had relatively few cases so far.
"I think many of us felt that it was never really going to hit us here," said David Long, the Health Officer for Lincoln County Public Health. "Waking up and hearing the news about 124 cases at Pacific Seafood was a shock to many of us."
Long said Monday that the county is in good shape when it comes to hospital beds and personal protective equipment. But he said the outbreak is challenging its ability to conduct contact tracing. “When we get 124 cases all at one time, it overwhelms the system.”
The county says it’s hired 20 new contact tracers who will be on the job later this week.
Pacific Seafood said operations are temporarily suspended at all five of its Newport locations. The first positive case associated with its shrimp facilitiy came on June 2, and an outbreak was declared the following day when additional cases were declared.
The company then hired a private contractor to test all of its Newport employees. Just over one-third of them tested positive.
The news comes at a challenging time for Pacific Seafood. A company representative told a panel of Oregon lawmakers last month that the Clackamas-based firm had already laid off more than 500 employees due to a significant drop in demand during the coronavirus pandemic. Pacific Seafood relies on the restaurant and hospitality industry for much of its sales.
As for the seafood that was in the plant as the outbreak spread, an Oregon public health official said it should be okay to eat.
"We don't think there's any risk from the food," said Paul Ciselak, the Communical Disease Medical Director for the Oregon Health Authority. "The CDC has indicated that they don't think that foodborne transmission with this pathogen is likely. Even if some virus were to get on the food products, it's likely not to be there by the time it gets to the consumer."
But Ciselak said there could be a risk to the Newport community with such a large outbreak. "We hope to minimize the risk by having identified the folks who have the virus, advising them to isolate at home, following up on their contacts, advising them to quarantine for 14 days," he said. "But I can't tell you that there is no risk. There will be some risk."
Ciselak said the usual precautions such as physical distancing, wearing a face covering in public settings, and frequent cleaning and hand washing are especially important in the Newport area right now.
While most Oregon counties have entered Phase Two of Gov. Kate Brown's re-opening plan, Lincoln County remains in Phase One. County Commissioners decided last week not to submit an application for Phase Two until the county is certain the Pacific Seafood outbreak is under control.
"I think it's fair to say that Lincoln County has taken a very deliberate approach to the rapidity with which it opens," said Ciselak. "But there are no plans to take it back to Phase One."