TOPPENISH — Following the Yakima Health District’s late afternoon announcement on Thursday, March 26, about the second confirmed COVID-19 related death – the agency’s hotline received 13 phone calls from Agri Beef (AB) individuals asking if their place of employment was a point of exposure for the virus.
An additional 35 calls were answered Friday morning, March 27, by health officials, prompting employees and family members to contact the Sunnyside Sun beginning at 8:33 a.m.
The newspaper interviewed several AB employees with health concerns about the death of person who had worked on the meat cutting line at the 201 Elmwood Road plant.
According to sources, whose names are being withheld to protect their identity, employees at the plant had initially heard that the 30-year-old man had died of a heart attack.
Within the hour, the Sun reached out to YHD Director of Public Health Partnerships Lilián Bravo and she confirmed the man’s death was a result of COVID-19 and that Agri Beef was a potential exposure site and they were in the process of notifying their staff and all close contacts.
The initial release about the second fatality in the county was also described as having several chronic health conditions.
“At this point in time, there have been multiple potential exposure sites all over the county,” Bravo stressed.
“For this reason, we ask that the public assume that they and others have already been exposed to COVID-19,” she urged.
Environment health experts met with the Toppenish company, which is considered an essential business, Friday to go over the social distancing guidelines and hygiene guidelines within the food processing plant.
The Sun reached out to the company for comment and a spokesperson answering the phone said someone would get back to the newspaper with a statement.
As of 2:03 p.m., Jay Theiler of Agri Beef issued the following statement via email:
“Yesterday, we were notified that one of our employees had died as a result of COVID-19. We express our deepest sympathy to the family and loved ones of the employee…
“It is not known where or how this employee may have contracted the virus. This employee provided a note from a health care provider that released him to work one day prior to his death.
“Once the cause of death was confirmed, Washington Beef notified all employees working at the plant who may have been exposed to this virus. Employees in the work area were sent home to self-quarantine in accordance with Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) recommendations.
“As a designated critical infrastructure in the food and agriculture sector, we will take all necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of our employees, while continuing the essential production of food products for our nation.
“There are no known indications that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food,” reported from the AB press release.
YHD Executive Director Andre Fresco stressed the public’s need to stay at home except for conducting essential activities or traveling to essential work.
They also remind everyone to wash hands frequently, as well as sanitizing commonly used areas frequently; to stay home from essential work if feeling sick for any reason and practice social distancing — maintaining at least 6-ft distance from people.