Coronavirus: Clark County health officials say cases at Dole came from outside work

Clark County Combined Health District officials said its unlikely the 22 cases of COVID-19 linked to the Dole Fresh Vegetables packaging plant in Springfield were spread while employees were working.

Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said there is nothing to suggest the virus was spread at the plant. Instead, he said it is likely that the virus was transferred among employees and employee contacts outside of the Dole plant — as many of the positive cases socialize outside work, ride together to and from work and some live together.

“It’s occurring outside of the plant because when they are (at the plant), they are wearing masks, social distancing and doing what is required,” Patterson said.

READ THE FIRST REPORT: Outbreak of 20 cases linked to Dole plant

Patterson said of the 22 cases, some patients have been hospitalized at Springfield Regional Medical Center, although he could not say how many. The number of Dole employees tested also is unclear, he said, because the district is not notified of negative results.

The first positive COVID-19 test at Dole was detected on April 22.

Complaints about the plant handling of workplace procedures related to the coronavirus had started to come into the health district about a month earlier.

Documents obtained by the Springfield News-Sun through a public records request show that between March 25 — just after Gov. Mike DeWine’s initial stay at home order — and April 24, seven complaints were made to the health district about Dole. Complaints ranged from the plant not enforcing social distancing to supervisors not taking the temperatures of staff members, according to the documents.

The most recent complaint, filed April 24 — two days after the first case was detected — alleged Dole “was not protecting workers and not sending contacts of positive cases home.”

The district followed up on each complaint, Patterson said.

“With all of our complaints that are made about a business, we contact them and we talk about their practices and we do education and educate their employees. They understand what their requirements are,” Patterson said.

As for the complaint filed on April 24, Patterson said the district was speaking with Dole “on a daily basis at this point.”

“We had found that complaint not to be the case. We had reached out to Dole case contacts and we knew that when they were ill, they were sent home,” Patterson said.

Of the 22 cases, 14 involve Dole employees (12 confirmed and 2 probable); eight are contacts of employees (five confirmed and three probable); and three cases involve people who do not live in Clark County, according to CCCHD data

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Patterson said it’s hard to say how exactly the virus ended up breaking out among Dole employees, however, some of the cases may be related to separate workplace outbreak the district has been monitoring in another county because.

The district announced on April 29 it was monitoring, “an outbreak in a workplace located outside of Clark County.” At the time, 21 Clark County cases had been linked to the outbreak. As of Wednesday, the case count was 24, according to the CCCHD.

“It’s possible, we have seen in our contact tracing, that this may be connected with the outbreak we are tracing outside the county. Although it’s impossible to say that this is where it came from,” Patterson said. “At least two contacts who work at Dole are connected to the other outbreak.”

Representatives of Dole said that the company has been following state guidelines and recommendations designed to curb the spread and exposure of COVID-19. That includes implementing social distancing, extensive hand washing, requiring face coverings at all times at its facilities and mandated self quarantining for employees and contractors exposed to those who tested positive.

In addition, a statement from the company said that they have increased the frequency of deep cleaning and sanitation, especially in places they deemed “high touch areas.”

“Contact tracing of positive individuals did not appear to reveal any clustering nor evidence of transmission of the virus within our plant,” according to a statement from Dole.

“No matter how the transmission occurred, however, Dole will continue to place employee health and well-being above all else in our efforts to keep fresh salads on shelves across the nation,” the statement added.

Patterson said it’s important for the public to know, “nothing is wrong with Dole’s food.”

“I ate a Dole salad last night for dinner. My wife made dinner, we had some pasta and a side salad. There is nothing wrong with the food,” Patterson said. “Almost all of the disease transmission, if not all of it, is not at the plant.”

Patterson said the health district has been working closely with Dole on safety precautions before the first case was detected on April 22.

“They had asked us to come out and visit before this even happened. The environmental health supervisor came out and consulted with them and proposed some additional recommendations that could be made,” Patterson said.

The only additional recommendation that the supervisor gave Dole was regarding correct contact time for cleanser - the amount of time a cleanser must sit on top of a surface to ensure proper sanitization.

“For example, one bottle of Lysol here in our office has a contact time of 5 minutes, which means you leave it on for five minutes, then you can wipe it off,” Patterson said.

Representatives from Dole said Wednesday that after the CCCHD inspection they added other protocols such as greater distancing within the Clark County facility and separation of workers there. Table dividers were installed in the cafeteria and similar dividers in the packing room.

The plant has also implemented additional safety measures this week including wellness questionnaires and are also working through the logistics of temperature taking, representatives also said Wednesday.

Patterson said if residents are focused on the Dole outbreak they are, “focused on the wrong thing.”

“I want the general public to know that if they are worried about the Dole outbreak and not worried about the surge in cases, then they are worried about the wrong thing,” Patterson said.

As of Wednesday, 30% of Clark County’s 168 coronavirus cases can be contributed to three outbreaks — the one at Dole, the one outside of the county and another at Southbrook Career Center.

“Obviously, that leaves 70% of cases that are community-acquired and our case contacts do not lead us to any of the three workplaces,” Patterson said. “That’s why we need to be social distancing, wearing masks and keeping ourselves away from people as much as possible until we start to see a downturn in cases. The word is out about the Dole outbreak, but this is a small part of the issue in Clark County.”

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