UPDATED: Orchard closes after 27 workers get COVID-19

This story, originally published on Monday, October 5, was updated on Wednesday, October 7. The total count of cases among seasonal apple pickers is now up to 28, according to an email from the orchard.

SHOREHAM — Champlain Orchards closed temporarily, after 27 seasonal apple pickers tested positive for COVID-19.

The Vermont Department of Health (VDH) reported Monday morning that there were 26 positive cases at the Shoreham orchard, and at a Tuesday morning press conference Commissioner of Health Mark Levine announced that a late-arriving batch of test results revealed one additional case.

There is no known risk to the public, Levine said Tuesday.

“Contact tracing has been completed, and at this time the outbreak is contained to the site,” he said. “There’s also no risk in eating apples or any other products that were grown and produced by the orchard, and if you’ve been apple picking in the past couple of weeks or visited the farm stand, you’re not at risk, either.”

Champlain Orchards owner Bill Suhr was complying with all public health recommendations and working with state health and agriculture officials to isolate the workers and ensure they have what they need, Levine said.

All the affected orchard staff were working in Vermont through the federal H-2A visa program, which allows nonimmigrant workers to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature in the United States.

They arrived in Shoreham on Sept. 14 after flying from Jamaica to JFK airport and traveling together by chartered bus to Vermont, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Alyson Eastman said on Monday, adding the company operating the charter bus was notified.

Near the end of the two-week quarantine period, one of the workers began to display symptoms of the disease caused by the coronavirus. The worker was tested Thursday, Oct. 1, and received a positive result Friday, State Epidemiologist for Infectious Disease Patsy Kelso said at the Monday news conference.

Levine doesn’t believe the case originated in Vermont.

Health officials tested 101 people over the weekend, including all 55 of the orchard’s H-2A workers, Levine said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Suhr sent an email update to his customers.

One staff member is in the hospital, “recovering and feeling better,” he wrote.

Otherwise, “most of the (27) men who tested positive are asymptomatic, and voluntarily choosing to continue working on harvesting this year’s crop, while remaining strictly compliant with all guidelines.”

Given that half of the picking crew got COVID-19, the orchard could be in a pickle if it had to finish the time-sensitive apple harvest if those pickers weren’t allowed to work.

The Independent contacted officials from the VDH, the Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD) but was unable to locate specific written guidance permitting COVID-positive apple pickers, who are considered “essential workers,” to continue harvesting.

It’s possible that guidance that specific doesn’t exist, said Steve Collier, legal counsel for the Agency of Agriculture.

“I’m not positive there is written guidance,” Collier told the Independent Wednesday morning. “But the reality is that the Department of Health has visited the site, provided individual technical support and determined that the workers are effectively in isolation together, and not at risk of infecting others.” 

No one was answering the main phone at the ACCD Wednesday morning. A recorded message directing callers to the agency’s website ended with, “We ask that businesses interpret the guidance and act in the best interests of public health.”

The Independent reached out to Suhr for comment Wednesday morning but he did not reply in time for this story.

Julia Doucet, outreach nurse for the Open Door Clinic (ODC) in Middlebury, visited the orchard Tuesday morning, ODC Executive Director Heidi Sulis told the Independent, and found “the orchard is working very closely with the health department around this and because the workers are in separate ‘pods’ and the COVID-positive pod is not cross-pollinating with the well pods, they’ve been OK’d to work in the orchard should they feel well enough.”

In fact, Sulis added, “it’s more optimal for them to be outside working than in a more confined shared space all day long.”

The Open Door Clinic has been working with the orchard since the weekend to ensure the workers receive proper medical care, Sulis said.

“People are naturally concerned about how to support these workers and get them access to health care,” she said. “We’re talking with volunteer health providers, the Department of Health and hospitals about the best way to support them.”

‘COVID KITS’

During her visit to the orchard Tuesday, Doucet provided “COVID kits” to each of the three staff living quarters, plus two temporary quarters set up to de-densify the workers, Sulis said.

The kits, which the ODC has been producing since the spring, contain basic supplies such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, thermometers, masks and educational materials.

Suhr was grateful for the assistance and for the outpouring of support from the community, he wrote on Tuesday.

“Thank you for all the kind words and support that we have received over the past few days. It is truly humbling to see our communities rally around us during these difficult times. This community support is part of what makes Vermont so special; we’re honored and inspired to be a part of it.”

Before Sunday, Addison County had recorded 85 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The outbreak in Shoreham accounts for a spike of more than 20% in one weekend.

Such periodic spikes are to be expected, Levine said Monday, and don’t mean that the state’s overall health situation is changing course in any way.

“Our game plan hasn’t changed,” he said.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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