In early March, Orchard View, one of the largest cherry operations in Oregon, set up a crisis group to prepare for the daunting task of conducting harvest under COVID-19 conditions.
As they war-gamed plans, they looked south to California, which has already begun harvesting multiple crops.
“They’re getting through it,” said Ian Chandler, vice president of operations for Orchard View, based in The Dalles.
Orchard View contracted with One Community Health, their long standing partner in caring for the health and wellbeing of seasonal and migrant workers, to help develop common sense ways to proceed with harvest and keep everyone safe. Many agricultural operations and their employees are not able to participate in government programs offering financial help, Chandler said, so “the only way forward is to find a way to safely work. We have to do it, there’s no way around it; too many people depend on the food produced and dollars our industry generates for the community. We consider our workforce essential during normal times, but now more than ever. Farmers must continue to go to work every day so the rest of us can eat.”
On a recent public health ZOOM meeting with orchardists, Dr. Miriam McDonell, medical officer for North Central Public Health District, explained that the counties in other states where seasonal workers are coming from are not hot spots for COVID-19 and have similar infection rates as Wasco County. Also, she said the local medical community is well prepared for the influx of harvest workers and has a plan, supplies and facilities to meet any need, meaning these workers will not “flood” our medical system.
Meanwhile, the crop is looking good and the number of people applying for harvest jobs are at normal levels, Chandler said.
Oregon State University Extension Agent Ashley Thompson said somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 people will come to Wasco County for cherry harvest, expected to begin June 6.
In recent weeks, the state has handed down long-awaited temporary rules for agriculture employment. They include doubling the amount of hand washing stations and port-a-potties in fields, from one for every 20 workers to one for every 10. If orchardists can’t find enough washing stations due to limited supply, they can proceed with as many as possible until they meet the ratio. The facilities must be sanitized three times a day.
Keeping workers six feet apart is natural in orchards, Chandler said, where trees are at least that far apart. If multiple people work on a tree, they are usually from the same family.
Face coverings are routinely worn anyway in the orchards to protect from dust, allergens and sun, Chandler said, and are currently required of all employees working in groups at Orchard View. North Central Public Health District (NCPHD) is working to obtain bleach and masks, which orchardists will be able to purchase at cost, said Teri Thalhofer, director of NCPHD.
Chandler said, “A lot of the stuff that we do for food safety lines right up with control of infectious disease.”
Before people working in the orchards start their day, they must wash their hands and wipe their bucket with a disinfecting wipe. Orchard View will also be checking employees daily to ensure no one with COVID symptoms is allowed to work. They must wash hands after going to the bathroom and after taking a break. Most wash their hands before leaving the orchard for the day, Chandler said.
One Community Health CEO Max Janasik said his organization brought on an infection control consultant to help train staff on safety best practices and she is now helping with outreach and education for orchardists and farm workers. “A preventative health manager is working to make sure communications are culturally sensitive and meet the needs of various audiences," he said.
People across multiple sectors have spent several months planning and preparing, including those in public health, local government, healthcare, childcare and social services.
One area of concern is childcare. Thalhofer said, “Current restrictions will make it difficult for our traditional partners to provide as much care as they have in the past. The Oregon Child Development Coalition and Migrant Education are working hard to adapt to the changing times.”
One Community Health has done more than 500 COVID-19 tests and is getting ready to ramp up testing for the migrant farm worker arrival, Janasik said. “Each day we’re making improvements that help us test greater numbers of patients so we can continue our focus on containing the virus. When we catch it early it is less likely to spread through our communities. Efficient testing that is accessible to all patients regardless of their insurance coverage is key to our containment strategy.” As for health screenings, over half the camps at Orchard View already have Wi-Fi to facilitate workers being “seen” by healthcare providers via video. The company will also provide a medic on site at its headquarters to assist employees with medical needs.
One Community Health has a standing relationship with orchards to provide health screenings, vaccinations and oral exams. “This year is different given the impact of COVID-19 and the many questions it brings with it, which is why we brought in an infection control specialist to help with building educational materials, readiness checklists, and materials to help orchardists and farm workers navigate this confusing time," Janasik said.
"For orchards needing additional help we can even offer on-site assessments and do on-site evaluations of operations to look for further safety opportunities,” he said.
The Dalles Public Works Director Dave Anderson is one of many area officials working under the local Unified Command group set up in March to respond to COVID-19.
In his work regarding Wi-Fi, he said one feasible concept is creating a “loaner” program to lend out Wi-Fi hotspots. Work is underway to see who wants it, what the best technologies to use are, (which might vary by location), and identifying potential funding sources, he said. As for housing, common areas will be cleaned with a bleach solution more often, family units will be housed together as much as possible, Chandler said, and picking groups will live in the same housing camps, to isolate each cohort of pickers. Orchard View has seven to nine picking groups and 14 camps, he said. Bunk beds won’t be used by unrelated people, and beds must be separated by six feet or a solid barrier. Cleaning materials must be provided to residents. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to it must be provided housing, and delivery of food and water, per Oregon Health Authority rule (orchardists were asked to set aside housing for isolation or quarantine, but the health district will find housing if needed.) Thompson wants to stress hygiene practices with extensive signage: In California, she said, workers were told once at orientation and weren’t reminded again. “My goal is you can’t escape the message here.”