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COVID-19 testing confirms farm’s prevention measures work

photo template 768 494 72dpi-RecoveredState COVID-19 testing at one of Washington’s largest fruit growers indicates that Gebbers Farms’ preventive measures have been effective at protecting workers, though the family-owned company continues to mourn the loss of three team members earlier this summer.  

Washington State Department of Health officials reported during a routine COVID-19 update last week that of the more than 3,000 workers tested to date at Gebbers Farms, 99.3 percent were negative for the virus. With a positive rate of less than 1 percent, all of whom were asymptomatic, the farm’s results are better than Okanogan County’s positive rate of 2.4 percent, Washington state’s rate of 3.2 percent, and the national rate of 5.5 percent.   

“We have worked diligently for months now to protect our workers, and we are grateful to learn that the state’s test results show that what we have been doing has helped,” said Cass Gebbers, CEO of Gebbers Farms. “Are we perfect? Of course not, but we are firmly committed to continual improvement. For perfection, we will all have to wait for a vaccine.”

Speaking to owners of other essential businesses, Gebbers continued, “Our experience should encourage all essential businesses that the time, money and effort that we invest in protecting our workers can make a difference.”

Gebbers Farms began taking steps to protect its workers — and its community in the process — in February, coordinating closely with its county public health office. Early efforts included providing bilingual educational materials and personal protective equipment to all workers, and following public health guidelines as they evolved.

When the pandemic continued to spread, the company consulted an infectious disease specialist to develop sophisticated protocols to limit workers’ virus exposure and transmission. For example, new guest workers and those returning from vacation are quarantined and observed when they arrive on the farm. Once determined not to be infected and cleared to work, they are organized into small groups who share living, housing, transportation and work routines. These “pods” minimize interaction with others. Testing is encouraged; in May, the company sought to arrange pre-emptive testing for guest workers when they first arrived in-state, but could not at that time because of a then-lack of testing capacity and supplies. Workers with a fever or other symptoms are quarantined in dedicated housing, where they are monitored and have access to medical care. Health care professionals conduct wellness checks as often as they determine necessary.

Gebbers Farms employs around 4,500 people at peak season in July, including 2,500 H2A guest workers. The company submitted its protocols to the state in June, seeking an exemption regarding pod size.

Three Gebbers Farmworkers died earlier this year, the most recent in early August: two guest workers and one community resident employee, all were long-time Gebbers Farms team members. The state’s Department of Labor & Industries is investigating. Meanwhile, Okanogan County has suffered almost 1,000 cases and nine deaths as of Sept. 2.

The state mandated testing of agricultural workers, and Gebbers Farms’ workers specifically, on Aug. 19.

Gebbers praised and thanked all company workers for their cooperation and noted the critical role they play in protecting their coworkers and the community.

“The Gebbers family is extremely grateful to every one of our workers, all of whom are essential to us,” said Gebbers. “You help to keep our nation’s food supply chain intact. We will continue to work for and with you to provide a safe and healthy work environment.”  

“Employers only control about a third of a worker’s time. That makes it even more important to work with employees,” said Gebbers. “Every one of us must be an active part of the solution. Our work will not end until COVID does.”

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