Workers in masks leave the Kraft Heinz Ontario facility on July 14. (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)
A recent Covid outbreak at the Kraft Heinz food processing plant was far worse than state officials indicated, with four times as many employees testing positive for the coronavirus as disclosed and leading to a week-long shutdown of the plant.
The revelation comes as Malheur County reported three more deaths in the past week as the pandemic continues to expand in the county.
The outbreak at the food processing plant was confirmed by the Oregon Health Authority last week, but the agency listed only six employees as affected. But company officials confirmed Monday that a total of 26 employees had tested positive as of July 8. The state count was through July 9.
Michael Mullen, a Kraft Heinz spokesperson, said that most of the cases were not counted in the Oregon’s report because “many of the employees that tested positive we tested or live in Idaho.”
Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said the Oregon Health Authority only pulls data from Oregon residents, and that the county health department’s system and those in Idaho “don’t talk to each other.”
“We’re in a very interesting situation because there are likely far more of what we would consider outbreaks of more than five people in a facility, but the state will only count them if it’s five Oregon residents,” said Poe.
Mullen said the entire Ontario facility was closed and deep cleaned from June 30 to July 8. The “majority” of the 26 employees who tested positive for Covid finished the two-week self-quarantine period with full pay and “have been cleared by their health care professionals to return to work.”
Last week, Mullen said the company had “taken several proactive measures” to protect its employees, including disinfecting and sanitizing “all employee touch points” every four hours, deep cleaning production lines and common areas where the sick employees worked, providing face masks to all employees and conducting health assessments and temperature checks of all employees before they enter the facility.
As of Monday, Malheur County reported 17 new cases Monday for a total of 515 cases dating back to the first instance in late March. The county’s rate of positive results from testing stood at 16.3% – about three times the state average.
The county also announced Malheur County’s fourth death – a woman in her 50s who died on July 13. A man in his 90s died on July 15 and a man in his 50s on July 16. All three individuals who died tested positive for Covid before their deaths, according to county officials.
The first Covid death in the county was reported on June 6 by the county health department, and the second death didn’t come until a month later, on July 9. The third death occurred on July 11. So far, all Malheur County Covid deaths have been individuals in their 50s or older.
Poe said the deaths of individuals in their 50s are “really significant,” because the department “would expect to see them more in ages over 80.”
Covid deaths are reported based on whether the individual had Covid when they died, meaning those reported as Covid deaths had the virus but it may not have been the cause of death, said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority.
Modie said Covid deaths can be based on diagnosis from a test, death certificates where the medical examiner lists a Covid-specific code under the primary or contributing cause of death, or a presumptive case, which is defined as those without a positive diagnostic test but have had Covid symptoms and close contact with a confirmed case.
“The reason for this reporting methodology is because OHA is using this data to track the spread of the disease and to create actionable steps for stopping its spread,” said Modie.
News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]
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