Health Care

Surge in Covid-19 cases in Addison County linked to apple orchard workers

Champlain Orchards in Shoreham on Monday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This article was updated at 5:50 p.m.

A surge of new Covid-19 cases in Addison County is being linked to an outbreak among workers at a Shoreham apple orchard. 

Twenty-six migrant farmworkers at Champlain Orchards have tested positive for the virus, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference Monday. Levine offered assurance that farm stand visitors, including those who pick apples, weren’t at risk. 

“The outbreak is contained to the farm, and I want to emphasize, there is no known risk to the public,” he said.

In addition, there were seven other cases statewide; the 33 cases reported Monday was the largest daily increase since early June.

The Champlain Orchards workers were members of the H-2A visa program, and had recently traveled to Vermont together from Jamaica, said state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso. The group arrived by plane on Sept. 14, took a travel bus from JFK airport in New York to Champlain Orchards, and came down with symptoms toward the end of their 14-day quarantine. 

The first apple harvester tested positive last Thursday, Oct. 1, Kelso said. 

Staff immediately contacted the Department of Health, and closed the 60-acre orchard, according to Champlain Orchards sales manager Ben Rule. Orchard owner Bill Suhr also made the decision to close Douglas Orchards, his other Shoreham orchard.

All workers were tested Saturday, then again on this week, Levine said. 

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One worker was hospitalized last week. Most were asymptomatic, but had access to health care should they need it, Levine said. 

Levine warned members of the public and the media against stigmatizing anyone who has tested positive. Everyone is susceptible to contracting the virus, he emphasized. 

“I have seen various facilities, businesses, travelers ethnic groups, and other groups face stigma over the course of this pandemic, and I call on Vermonters again to focus on the disease, and how to keep it at bay where we can, rather than creating fear or rumors,” he said. 

The Department of Health had conducted contact tracing and was continuing to offer Covid tests, Kelso said. Workers did not come in close enough contact to apple pickers or other members of the public to spread the virus to others, Kelso said. She said the orchard had followed public health guidelines. 

About 325 H-2A worker visas have been approved this year, said Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. The next group of workers is expected to arrive in early 2021.

A sign at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham Monday announces it has closed after a crew member tested positive for Covid-19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For now, Champlain Orchards has closed in-person apple picking, but continues to sell apples wholesale. 

Levine assured the public that it’s safe to eat apples or other products grown at the orchard.

“If you’ve been apple picking in the past couple of weeks, or visited the farm stand, you are not at risk, either,” he said. 

The spike in cases also shouldn’t alarm Vermonters, Levine said. As the weather cools, the state may see small outbreaks, but Vermonters should just continue to adhere to the same proven public health guidelines, he said. 

“The game plan, if you will, really hasn’t changed significantly at all,” Levine said. “And I don’t want everyone to think that this new set of cases that we reported last night means there’s a sudden departure from the state’s performance overall, because that would not be true.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of Health reported 33 cases in Addison County on Monday. In fact, it reported 26 cases in Addison County, and 33 statewide.

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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