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

27 Farmworkers In Shoreham Test Positive For COVID-19

Champlain Orchards in Shoreham
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According to owner Bill Suhr, 26 employees at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Updated 10/6/20 11:50 a.m.

In Shoreham, 27 farmworkers at Champlain Orchards have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

A spokesperson for the health department confirmed that as of Monday evening, one person was hospitalized in relation to the outbreak.

The cases, which were reported on Monday, amount to the largest single-day increase in cases in the state in four months. The state reported a total of 33 cases Monday, 26 of which are in Addison County, where the orchard is located.

Champlain Orchards owner Bill Suhr told VPR Monday that the affected individuals are all men who came from Jamaica to work seasonally in Vermont through the H2A visa program. All were living in the same facility, one of five worker living areas at the orchard, Suhr said. The workers arrived in Vermont on Sept. 14 and began a mandatory two-week quarantine, in keeping with state health guidelines, according to Suhr.

More from NPR: White House Seeks To Lower Farmworker Pay To Help Agriculture Industry

Suhr said one individual told the orchard’s management he was not feeling well on Sept. 29, a day after the quarantine period ended. The individual subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

Suhr said the health department set up a testing site at the orchard Saturday morning, testing each of the more than 90 workers employed there this season. Suhr said 26 tests came back positive on Sunday afternoon.

"We were certainly trying to abide by everything that was recommended. We can always do better and so can our health care system... but it is a pandemic, and we're working on taking care of our staff right now." Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards

Of the people who tested positive, Suhr said, “They are all feeling well, and we hope that remains the case.”

Champlain Orchards closed to the public over the weekend, at a time of year when the orchard would typically be busy with visitors.

“We are focusing our bakery crew. Instead of making pies for the public, they are working on preparing meals… for our staff,” Suhr said Monday.

More from VPR: 'They Should Include Us': Vermont Immigrant Farmworkers Push For Coronvirus Aid

Suhr said he is committed to ensuring the COVID-positive workers will have access to medical care. “We would call Porter Hospital if we needed help,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Health Department spokesperson Ben Truman confirmed the outbreak was “self-contained” at an individual business in Addison County, but declined to name the business, and said there was “no risk to the public” at this time.

Suhr said all fruit handled by those who have been infected will be sanitized. But he notes that transmission through food is rare. Suhr said that his business followed all recommended health protocols.

“We were certainly trying to abide by everything that was recommended. We can always do better and so can our health care system… but it is a pandemic, and we’re working on taking care of our staff right now,” Suhr said.

Outbreak contained to orchard

During a 3:30 p.m. press briefing on Oct. 5, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the outbreak was limited to the orchard.

“At this time, the outbreak is contained to the farm, and I want to emphasize: there is no known risk to the public,” Levine said. “It is also safe to eat apples and other products that were grown or produced at the orchards. If you’ve been apple picking in the past couple of weeks or visited the farmstand, you are not at risk either.”

State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said that contact tracing is now complete.

State officials said that the affected H2A workers flew into the United States as a group, to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, NY. From there, they traveled to Champlain Orchards via a charter bus. They entered quarantine upon arrival at the farm.

"At this time, the outbreak is contained to the farm, and I want to emphasize: there is no known risk to the public." - Dr. Mark Levine, Vt. Commissioner of Health

Levine confirmed that the individual who first tested positive became symptomatic “towards the end of the quarantine period.”

Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said there are currently 325 H2A visa recipients working on Vermont farms.

According to Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Alyson Eastman, Vermont would typically host more than 400 H2A visa workers in a non-pandemic year.

Levine said that as of 4 p.m. Monday, 101 samples had been collected at Champlain Orchards for PCR testing. Of those samples, 55 were collected from H2A visa recipients. Testing will likely continue onsite.

The orchard was closed to the public over the weekend. Owner Bill Suhr said it will remain closed for at least another day.

Disclosure: Champlain Orchards is a VPR underwriter.

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

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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