LISTEN: What's driving the high rate of COVID-19 infections in Yakima County | KNKX

LISTEN: What's driving the high rate of COVID-19 infections in Yakima County

May 19, 2020

Yakima County has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections among counties on the West Coast. That means a larger portion of the county's population has tested positive for the coronavirus compared to other counties.

In some ways the county is similar to other places in Washington. Health officials are battling outbreaks at long-term care facilities. The county also has ramped up testing.

But another driving factor is the county's large population of essential workers. The pandemic is rippling through the region's agricultural industries, sparking labor strikes and a lawsuit.

Enrique Pérez de la Rosa covers the Yakima Valley for Northwest Public Broadcasting. He spoke with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

ENRIQUE PÉREZ DE LA ROSA,  NWPB reporter: What's different about Yakima is that our economy is very reliant on agriculture. That's an essential business under the governor's stay-home order, and about a third of jobs here are in agriculture and food processing. If you add to that workers in hospitals, local government, and in sectors supporting essential industries, that means that about two-thirds of workers in Yakima are considered essential.

So essentially that means we didn't shut down as much as places like King County. We're still working. We're quickly approaching 2,500 cases here. And that's not the highest number of cases in the West Coast. But per capita, Yakima has more cases than any county in Washington, Oregon or California.

KIRSTEN KENDRICK, host: And we've been talking about these numbers, as you mentioned, in comparison to those in the Puget Sound region, which has a larger population and generally more infections. But what can we learn by comparing Yakima County to nearby Kittitas or Chelan counties?

PÉREZ DE LA ROSA: So these counties are still pretty different from each other, but a good way to compare them is probably to look at how they can respond to outbreaks. Chelan and Kittitas both had outbreaks in food processing facilities recently. They started investigating them even if one or two workers were positive. Employers stopped production and workers got tested and officials found dozens and dozens of more cases. So they're in a position to react quickly to outbreaks and contain them. That means there's a path forward to reopening their local economies.

But that's not the case in Yakima. Yakima has a higher testing rate than most counties. But I've heard from workers and farmers that they're also seeing outbreaks, as many as 16 in one facility. But workers are not getting tested. Testing to that same scale is just not available. And that's because Yakima has to reserve some tests for long-term care facilities and hospital workers and people with symptoms.

KENDRICK: So agriculture and food processing seem to be the pressure points here. How is this all playing out among employers and workers?

PÉREZ DE LA ROSA: Employers say they're doing everything they can to protect workers following state guidelines. But farmworker advocates, United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por La Justicia have sued the state, saying those guidelines and even newly released rules don't go far enough. They're especially concerned about foreign guest workers brought to Washington from countries like Mexico to pick cherries and prune apple trees. They work pretty distanced from each other out in orchards, but each of these workers are housed and transported all together in kind of crowded situations.

In packing facilities, employers say they're providing protective equipment and even taking workers off the production line so it's less crowded, but many workers still feel unsafe. Hundreds of workers from at least seven packing houses around Yakima have walked out in strike, and they're demanding more protective equipment.

But employers say that that's all very difficult to buy right now. There's a lot of demand for all that from the agricultural industry. And as more industries open up, the supply shortage of that equipment could get worse if they hand out masks every day. Employers run the risk of running out completely.

KENDRICK: So all this is playing out with the workers and their employers. How are local elected leaders responding to it all?

PÉREZ DE LA ROSA: Well, most are abiding by and promoting social-distancing measures. But that's not the case everywhere. Notably one city council member in Yakima, Jason White, he really downplays the impact of coronavirus and even says that it's a Chinese bioweapon and promotes these conspiracy theories on his Facebook page. And so he's been actually censured by the Yakima City Council because of those claims.

KENDRICK: So there's some strife on the City Council. You've got the strikes and the high infection rate in Yakima County. What's next?

PÉREZ DE LA ROSA: Well, really, health officials are keeping an eye on things, monitoring outbreaks where they can. They're still trying to acquire more testing and more protective equipment, as are employers. And really for workers, they have to wait to see how the lawsuit against the state develops and what new rules the state issues, especially for transportation of H-2A workers and for workers in packing houses. So far, we've only seen guidelines there, and workers feel that more has to be done.