Gov. Inslee visits Okanogan Co., seeing high rates of COVID-19 cases

BREWSTER, Wash. — In a county where there are only more than 40,000 people, Okanogan has more COVID-19 cases per capita than anywhere in Washington.

As of Thursday, there were 428.3 cases per 100,000 in Okanogan County. That’s double what Spokane County has per capita.

The City of Brewster is seeing more people test positive than any other cities in the county, as well. It’s a town of almost 2,500 people, and more than 500 people have tested positive for the virus since March.

In such a small town, some thought they wouldn’t be affected by the virus.

“I can tell you the attitude in the community was a lot like that. I think it was just ‘Oh, Okanogan County,’ in general. ‘Oh, it’s Brewster,’ ‘Oh, it’s…’ whatever the case is, ‘It’s Omak, we’re not going to get it here,'” said Arthur Smyth, the Mayor of Brewster.

Smyth said he tried to prepare for the pandemic early on, but it still caught up to them. He sees the impact of COVID-19 almost everyday, also working as an EMT.

“Whether it’s the city, fire EMS, small groups of people doing these jobs, one person shows up positive, everyone has to quarantine things, shut down,” he said. “And that can really affect the community as a whole.”

Governor Jay Inslee felt that impact today when he visited Brewster to talk with some local and agricultural leaders about the spike in cases, and what they can do to fix it.

“Some of the people talked about some of the people they knew who died of this and the emotional damage, to the people we met, were pretty apparent,” Inslee said in a teleconference.

So far, nine people have died from the virus in Okanogan County. Six were from Brewster. Two of those people worked at Gebbers Farms, the largest grower in the area.

It employs 4,500 people, half of them on a work visa. Since mid-March, Gebbers Farms says it has had less than 3 percent of its guest workers test positive for the virus.

Gebbers Farms CEO also spoke to Inslee today, telling the governor that they plan to increase testing. While it is important to increase testing, Inslee added that it’s also important to get people to understand they need to be tested.

“We need cooperation from people to take the tests and, very importantly, to isolate when they’re positive as well as their households,” Inslee said.

A National Guard unit will be mobilized in the area to increase testing capacity, as well.

In the agriculture industry, Inslee says there are multiple factors in why the number of positive cases increased so quickly.

“Working in plants, working close to one another, they’re living close to one another. They’re traveling frequently together, and frequently living in housing that has high occupancy, and have less access to healthcare,” Inslee continued. “All of those things have made the transmission rates really high in the agriculture, in communities that have high levels of agriculture.”

Both Okanogan Public Health and the city told 4 News Now Gebbers Farms has done well in communicating its coronavirus situation.

However, because of the two deaths, the Department of Labor and Industries opened an investigation into the farm in late July.

A spokesperson with L&I said they had information that led them to believe the company wasn’t follow temporary housing rules.

Gebbers Farms has guest worker houses. Some of the housing units have bunk beds. On Gebbers Farms’ website it says it is still allowed to have bunk beds during the pandemic, they just need to be spaced six feet apart.

Smyth believes that more education for the residents, and guest workers, will help reduce the spread a little more. He added they need to do more verbal education instead of with flyers and signs.

“We’re a rural community, agriculturally, it’s hard to get the education and word out to folks who don’t speak the language very well. I think that has something to do with it for sure,” Smyth said.

As for the rapid increase in cases, Okanogan Public Health Community Director Lauri Jones believes the community spread happened so quickly because there are many people in living in a home together. She says there’s also a lack of housing in Brewster and the rest of Okanogan County.

Jones says the COVID situation is getting better, adding that they are seeing fewer people test positive since July. The rate of cases per capita did drop from 493 to 428 from Wednesday to Thursday.