A total of 45 employees tested positive for COVID-19 on May 27 at Gilbert Orchards in Yakima, Washington.

The outbreak started with one worker among a new arrival of Mexican H-2A employees who tested positive and spread over two floors of their housing facilities before their on-farm vaccinations took effect, said Sean Gilbert, company president.

“That’s the interesting timing,” Gilbert said.

The 45 workers are in quarantine. Health authorities have not heard of any symptoms among them, said Brittany Morrison, lead health services consultant and supervisor of the Yakima Health District’s COVID-19 Outbreak Response and Investigation team.

The tree fruit industry in Washington and Oregon has made it a point to test and vaccinate all incoming H-2A workers shortly after they arrive. This outbreak only adds an exclamation point to that, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

 “This is why ongoing testing of arriving workers will remain important,” DeVaney said.

Gilbert Orchards did those things, Gilbert said.

The workers arrived on May 15 and were tested on May 18. One man tested positive. It’s unclear whether he contracted the coronavirus in Mexico, en route to Washington or in the three days between arrival and testing, Gilbert said. He expects the Yakima Health District to investigate that.

All the incoming H-2A workers were vaccinated at the farm on May 21 except for the one man and his two roommates, who were ineligible because of their close exposure, Gilbert said. So, the remaining 42 tested positive for COVID-19 after their vaccination. 

Health authorities estimate it takes about two weeks for vaccinations to fully bolster the body’s immune system.

Health district officials have recommended the company test all employees every three to seven days for a total of 14 days after the last positive test.

A previous group of H-2A employees arrived at Gilbert Orchards over the winter and were vaccinated in March, Gilbert said.

Up until Friday, May 28, state farm housing regulations allowed the use of bunk beds for cohorts of up to 15 workers who live, travel and work together. Gilbert Orchards had a variance that allowed it to keep cohorts of up to 24 workers, Gilbert said.

The state modified those rules Friday afternoon to allow the use of bunk beds for fully vaccinated workers, among other changes. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose.

—by Ross Courtney