SPOKANE, Wash. -- The highest rate of coronavirus cases in Washington state is in Yakima County, an agricultural giant that has more than double the state average of cases.
In fact, the county of 250,000 people has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases of any county on the West Coast. Health experts point to a large number of essential workers, a large number of cases in long-term care facilities and a large agricultural workforce living and working in close quarters as the causes.
“We just haven’t been as much down as the rest of the state because our workforce is going to work,″ said Lilian Bravo, a spokeswoman for the Yakima Health District.
“Physically going to work every day is going to put you at a higher risk than others,″ Bravo said.
As of Friday, Yakima County had 1,203 positive cases, a rate of 455 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest in the state. Second was Snohomish County at 301 cases per 100,000. The statewide average was 185 cases per 100,000 residents.
Yakima County, 140 miles southeast of Seattle, also had a relatively high number of deaths from coronavirus with 47. Bravo said people in long-term care facilities account for about a third of cases and most of the deaths from COVID-19 in the county.
Bravo said the health district is involved with testing staff and residents at long-term care facilities.
State health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said Washington Department of Health officials were sent to Yakima to help the long-term care facilities deal with the outbreaks.
“I think what we’re seeing in some of these outbreaks, whether it’s a long-term care facility or a food processing plant, is that you get a lot of people together, there’s a lot of transmission, and then all these individuals go home and back to their own communities and infect others in their family and others in their community,” Lofy said.
Meanwhile, nearly 73,000 of the 115,000 Yakima County jobs, or 63%, are in essential industries such as agriculture, health care and wholesale trade, according to the Yakima County Development Association.
“We’re not as shut down as some areas in the state,” Bravo said.
The county has a large number of people in the agriculture and food processing industries. Many live and work in close quarters, which can spread the disease.
With the harvest season just getting underway, Bravo said the health district is wary that the infection rate will continue to grow, especially in housing for migrant workers that tends to be cramped.
The state recently issued new guidelines to protect agriculture workers against COVID-19.
The new Department of Labor and Industry rules require growers and operators to have procedures for a suspected or confirmed case of the virus, to educate workers on health recommendations, and to have employees stay home if they are sick. They are also required to ensure social distance and physical barriers between workers, to have hand-washing stations and to increase sanitation.
But two farmworker groups filed lawsuits in Skagit County Superior Court seeking tougher rules and immediate oversight.
Yakima-based advocacy group Latino Civic Alliance is demanding the state adopt enforceable standards to protect agricultural workers from exposure. The organization noted 96% of the state’s agricultural workers are Latinos, with many living below poverty levels and without health care benefits.
Despite the high number of cases, the health care system in Yakima County is not overwhelmed, Bravo said.
“We do have the capacity to serve individuals,″ she said. “The community has done a great job.″
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.