Lamb Weston Heroes

Staff photo by Ben Lonergan, file

A sign outside of Lamb Weston’s Hermiston processing facility thanks the plant’s employees.

Umatilla County’s seventh COVID-19 death came just two days after its sixth, according to Umatilla County Public Health.

The department announced that an 83-year-old COVID-19 patient died at his residence on July 3. On July 1, a 93-year-old Umatilla County man with COVID-19 died at his residence. Both had underlying health conditions, according to the news release.

The county continues to see double-digit increases of new confirmed COVID-19 cases daily. As of July 7, Umatilla County had announced a total of 788 confirmed cases and on that date had 46 presumptive cases that were awaiting confirmation.

According to the health department, 332 people had recovered from the virus and there were 495 active cases when counting presumptive and confirmed. A presumptive case is defined as a person who has been in close contact with a confirmed case and is now showing symptoms, but has not received a test result to confirm or deny the diagnosis.

Twelve Umatilla County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 7, down one from the record of 13 announced July 6.

The Oregon Health Authority announces an updated list of workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 in the state each Wednesday. On July 1, a few new Umatilla and Morrow county worksites made the list, which only names worksites with at least 30 employees that have at least five cases linked to them.

Lamb Weston’s Hermiston facility had the third-largest outbreak in the state, according to the list, with 73 cases that were linked to it, either through an employee getting sick or a close contact of a COVID-positive employee testing positive.

Spokeswoman Shelby Stoolman said in an email on July 2 that after Lamb Weston’s first cases had emerged, the company conducted a testing event for their employees after closing down the plant. She said they were awaiting the remainder of the test results before determining when it would be safe to restart operations.

“All of our facilities operate under safety protocols that include health screening on arrival, required mask use on-site, and social distancing,” she said. “We consistently review these protocols to ensure we’re providing a safe work environment for our team members.”

Hill Meat in Pendleton was added to OHA’s list, as was Oregon Potato Company in Boardman and Columbia River Processing, a subsidiary of Tillamook Cheese in Boardman.

According to a statement by Tillamook, the cases are related to employees who tested positive for COVID-19 between June 16 and June 28. The company stated that three of those employees have already recovered and been cleared to return to work, while the rest are recovering at home. Those who are recovering at home or are quarantining after being identified as a close contact are receiving full pay and benefits.

The company indicated that employees have already been wearing masks and social distancing as much as possible, and will continue to do so. The factory has not been shut down.

“We are working closely with state and county health officials to keep them apprised of these developments and they have affirmed that the protocols we have in place to prevent the spread of the virus reflect best industry practices,” the company stated. “On June 17, OSHA, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Agriculture completed an on-site inspection at our Boardman facility and gave us their top rating and high praise for the measures we have in place to protect our workers. We have and will continue to put the health and safety of our employees, and the communities where (we) operate, as our highest priority.”

Shearer’s Foods was not listed on OHA’s worksite outbreaks for the week, but the company voluntarily sent out a news release on June 29 that six employees of its Hermiston plant had tested positive for COVID-19 and that all of those employees and close contacts of those employees had been sent home to quarantine with full pay.

Umatilla County’s rising case numbers, and in particular its quickly rising hospitalizations, have landed the county, along with Morrow County, on the state’s watchlist for counties that may have to go back under more stringent restrictions if things do not improve.

In his regular update to public officials in the county, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock noted the county’s contact tracers continue to trace a large number of cases back to people who went to work while sick. He stated that many of those people work in low wage jobs without much of a safety net to help them feel able to take several days off of work to quarantine if they are only experiencing mild symptoms.

The county health department continues to urge people to stay home from work if they are experiencing any symptoms of illness including a cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat, chills, diarrhea, vomiting, runny nose or a new loss of the sense of taste or smell.

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