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59 COVID-19 Cases Identified In Klamath Falls Farmworker Cluster

Victoria Barajas, a medical assistant at Klamath Health Partnership, tests farmworkers for COVID-19 in late September.
Erik Neumann/JPR
Victoria Barajas, a medical assistant at Klamath Health Partnership, tests farmworkers for COVID-19 in late September.

Oregon Health Authority announced a cluster of 59 cases of COVID-19 in the Klamath Falls area on Thursday. All the cases are connected to seasonal farmworkers employed at a facility owned by Planasa Oregon Operations LLC.

The cluster marks the highest single-day increase for Klamath County and contributed to the highest daily number of cases in Oregon since the pandemic began.

“If an individual is staying in a community and working there, even though it’s just a seasonal basis, the case count belongs to the county in which they’re working and staying at that moment,” says Valeree Lane with Klamath County Public Health.

Hundreds of seasonal farmworkers are currently employed at Planasa for roughly six weeks trimming strawberry plants. Farmworkers arrived in the Klamath Falls area from along the West Coast and from Mexico.

According to Oscar Garcia, the human resources manager at Planasa Oregon Operations, the employees who tested positive were asymptomatic when they arrived in September and were tested soon after. They have since quarantined and recovered, he says.

“We wanted to make sure that the welfare of the employees was taken care of,” Garcia says. “We had the information, we took action. Every employee is back to work and healthy.”

According to the Oregon Health Authority, an outbreak investigation started on Oct. 1, but the initial number of cases was "below the threshold for public disclosure."

Lane, with Klamath County Public Health, stresses that since those who tested positive have gone through their isolation period, there is no current risk to residents of Klamath Falls.

“Individuals who are worried about community spread or contagion within the community need to remember that we’ve traced all of these back to a source,” Lane says.

Latinos, and farmworkers in particular, are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Oregon and nationally.

The positive cases were identified by Klamath Health Partnership, a federally qualified health center in Klamath Falls that tests for coronavirus at farms in the area.

“The goal of this testing event was accomplished,” says Amanda Blodgett, the chief operations officer of Klamath Health Partnership. “There were employees that need help, we were able to identify those employees and Planasa was able to help them.”

Garcia with Planasa Oregon says, moving forward, they are taking daily temperatures of employees and monitoring their condition for signs of illness.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.