COVID-19 Update – Champlain Orchards Outbreak

Over the weekend, the Vermont Department of Health confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak among orchard workers at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham. I have been in contact with officials at the Agencies of Human Services and Agriculture, and participated in a briefing for legislators and press conference with the Commissioner of Health, State Epidemiologist, and Secretary of Agriculture today to be sure I had accurate information to share with constituents. I know many people are concerned about Addison County’s first extensive COVID-19 outbreak.

At this time, 26 people have tested positive and one has been hospitalized. The workers infected are seasonal farm workers from Jamaica who were completing their 14-day quarantine period after a mid-September arrival in Vermont. The Vermont Department of Health (VDH) has completed contact tracing for all people who came in close contact with one of the infected workers, including other employees at the Orchard. Testing of individuals considered close contacts is ongoing and additional cases could still be revealed.

The Department of Health reports that members of the general public have not been identified as close contacts for any of the people infected. This includes anyone who may have visited the Orchard to pick or purchase apples, as the infected workers did not have direct contact with visitors to the Orchard. The individuals infected or identified as contacts are being isolated or quarantined according to VDH protocols. The VDH epidemiological team visited the Orchard this past weekend to assess the layout and workflow of the site to help prevent further spread. At this time, the Orchard is temporarily closed, and is following VDH advice and protocols as well as relevant food safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. The Commissioner of Health has confirmed that there is no health risk associated with eating apples or other products purchased or produced at the Orchard.

At this time, most of the people infected are asymptomatic and do not feel sick. However, the Department of Health is working to ensure that the people infected have access to the health care they may need to recover and prevent the further spread of the virus. Bridges to Health, Vermont’s health outreach program for migrant workers, has been involved, and the Open Door Clinic which serves hundreds of farm workers in Addison County, has also been in the loop. A Jamaican liaison officer has also been available for support and translation services for the workers.

The Agency of Agriculture is working to determine if these “H-2A” farm workers qualify for assistance under the federal Coronavirus Relief Act, and to assist Champlain Orchards with applying for a grant through the COVID-19 Agriculture Assistance Program authorized by the Vermont Legislature that will be sufficient to cover additional expenses identified due to this outbreak.

I know news of this outbreak has concerned many members of our community and many people are wondering how they can help. The orchard workers from Jamaica at Champlain Orchards and other local orchards are annual members of our Addison County community. Many of them have worked in Vermont for years, have close friends here, and consider Vermont their second home. Apple orchards are an integral part of local autumn traditions and important components of our agricultural economy. This outbreak also underscores the terrible national reality that people of color are disproportionately affected by the COVID crisis.

I have reached out to Champlain Orchards owner, Bill Suhr, to see if he or his staff need anything to help them get through this crisis. The Department of Health is providing regular updates to leaders in Shoreham, and I have requested that they include Shoreham School officials in these updates, particularly because some students will be returning to full-time school next week. People across our county and state have come together to help each other out during the COVID crisis, and I know this time will be no different.

This is a reminder that despite our success in fighting this virus, Vermont is not immune to outbreaks and infection. We all should remain vigilant and follow basic public health protocols – wear a mask, wash hands, keep distance, and stay home if you’re feeling sick. If you’re concerned about your exposure, there is a pop-up testing clinic in Addison County tomorrow, October 6th, at the Middlebury Health Office.  Porter Medical Center is also offering additional testing from 12:00 -5:00 every day this week; you can call 388-8850 to schedule an appointment. You can also visit the Vermont Department of Health website for extensive information on COVID-19 and Vermont resources.

Stay safe and be well.