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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Reporter Debrief: Inside The Outbreak At Champlain Orchards

H2A visa recipients line up for coronavirus testing at orchard
Julia Doucet
/
The Open Door Clinic
At Champlain Orchards, employees who tested negative for coronavirus line up at the farm for a second test on Oct. 6.

An orchard in Addison County remains closed to the public, after 27 farmworkers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. All are workers at Champlain Orchards who traveled to Vermont from Jamaica to work on the farm under the H-2A visa program.

The program allows residents of other countries to do seasonal agricultural work in the United States. The health department says the outbreak is contained to this specific group of workers, and that the public is not at risk. 

VPR’s Henry Epp has been following this story since it broke on Monday, and spoke about it with reporter Liam Elder-Connors on VPR’s All Things Considered.

Liam Elder-Connors: On Monday we learned that these workers tested positive, just after finishing a two-week quarantine period last week. What do we know about how they may have gotten the virus? 

Henry Epp: So, it’s not clear. The first worker started exhibiting symptoms toward the end of the quarantine period, and was tested just after that quarantine ended last week.

But, it appears that the two-week quarantine was not actually what most of us would consider a quarantine. 

According to several current and former employees of Champlain Orchards I’ve spoken with, all of whom wish to remain anonymous, the workers who arrived in mid-September were kept separate from others for two weeks after arriving, but they were told to begin working pretty much right away, just two days after they arrived. So, they were picking apples during that quarantine, but were not interacting with other employees at the orchard.

More from Vermont Edition: An Update On The Outbreak In Shoreham From A Nurse On The Ground

Two current employees also told me that the group went shopping at local stores a day after arriving at the orchard. And multiple employees told me they don’t think enough was being done prior to this outbreak at the farm to follow health guidelines – such as wearing masks and sanitizing work areas.

I spoke to Champlain Orchards’ owner Bill Suhr, and he confirmed this – both the working quarantine and the shopping trip. As for following health and safety guidelines, Suhr said masks have been “encouraged” at the orchard, but not required. When I asked him to respond to those employee concerns about a general lack of safety precautions, here’s what he said:
 

“There’s never-ending opportunities to make improvements, and I look forward to continuing to educate both our staff and the community on measures that can be taken, and [I’m] very appreciative of the support we’re getting.” - Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards

Is it against state or federal guidelines to have H-2A workers stay separate, but still be working after arriving here?

It’s actually not. The orchard appears to have been following all federal and state guidance on this. According to the Agency of Agriculture, H-2A workers are essential workers, because they’re working to produce food. So it’s perfectly fine for them to be working as soon as they arrive from out of the country, but the agency recommends they stay separate from others for two weeks and follow other safety precautions that all worksites in Vermont are required to abide by.

I talked to the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets’ General Counsel Steven Collier about this, and he explained why the quarantine rules for H-2A workers are different from those for leisure travelers:
 

“That’s the distinction here, is that H-2A workers, like other essential employees, are engaged in critical agriculture. Obviously, if you have a crop that needs to be harvested, and you don’t harvest it on time, then you no longer have a crop, and you no longer have food.” – Steven Collier, general counsel for the Vt. Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets

Collier also said that the guidance is for H-2A workers to stay apart from the public when they arrive. So the shopping trip that was done would appear to be outside of those guidelines, but not any formal requirements.

The health department said the orchard was also in compliance when it flew all the workers from Jamaica to the United States on the same plane, then had them take a charter bus to Vermont. 

All of these workers who were infected with the coronavirus were living in the same housing facility. What are the housing conditions like?

So, from what I’ve been able to learn, the H-2A workers are all living in bunkhouses, and those that have tested positive were all in the same bunkhouse. 

These are fairly tight living quarters with a number of bunk beds, so there’s one person on top of the other in bunks.

More from Vermont Edition: Testing, Guidance, An Outbreak In Addison County: Checking In With Health Commissioner Mark Levine

According to Bill Suhr, 30 workers were all in one bunkhouse when they arrived, and now 26 of those workers have all tested positive, and one additional worker from a different crew has also tested positive.

Again, this does not seem to be in violation of any regulation or safety guidance, but of course, we know that the virus can spread easily when people are living and interacting in close quarters.

The orchard is closed to the public right now, and Bill Suhr said the hope is that employees will be tested again on Friday, and if they get results in time and the staff has the energy, they’ll reopen this weekend:

“This has certainly been a challenging time for us, making sure that all staff and our community remain healthy.” – Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards

Tell us more about this visa program. How commonly is it used by farms in Vermont?

It’s fairly common. The agency of agriculture says there are about 325 H-2A workers in Vermont this year. That’s actually lower than usual; typically there are around 400. 

Many H-2A workers come from Jamaica, and that is the case for most of those who are at Champlain Orchards. Many come back to Vermont year after year.

We’ve heard that this outbreak is contained to the farm. So is community spread possible?

The Health Department says the public is not at risk, and those that have visited the orchard recently are not at risk of contracting the virus, and apples from the orchard are safe to eat.

Still, testing is available in Addison County at Porter Medical Center through tomorrow for people who want a test but aren’t experiencing symptoms. No doctor’s referral is needed. 

So far, no additional cases have been reported in Addison County since the initial spike on Monday. One additional case of a worker at the orchard was confirmed on Tuesday.

Still, 27 cases among one group is a lot. And H-2A workers don’t really have many public advocates in Vermont. The group Migrant Justice mostly focuses on dairy farm workers who aren’t in this seasonal program.

And finally, it’s really important to say that no one should be judged or prejudiced against for contracting the virus, particularly when it’s among a specific group of people. Here’s how Health Commissioner Mark Levine put it earlier this week:

“I call on Vermonters again to focus on the disease and how to keep it at bay where we can, rather than creating fear, rumors or placing blame.” – Dr. Mark Levine, Vt. commissioner of Health

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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